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U.S. Resorts Hire Filipino Laborers
« on: May 02, 2007, 05:34:04 PM »
By Stephanie Paterik
The Arizona Republic


SCOTTSDALE, AZ -- Back in the Philippines, Simeon Andagan had a family, a home, a degree and a management position at a top hotel.

He left it all behind because he could earn more money making beds for $10.50 an hour at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess.

The 36-year-old is among 300 Filipinos who landed in the Valley in October and will stay through May, mostly working as entry-level housekeepers and dishwashers.

The men and women provide an attractive alternative to workers from Mexico because Mexican laborers are seen as a high risk for overstaying their visas.

The Filipino workers come here because paychecks back home are small and opportunities are limited.

Valley resorts need them because they grapple with a severe staffing shortage in the winter and spring months, when millions of tourists spill into the state for sunshine, shopping and golf.

"My friends say America is a land of opportunity, a land of milk and honey, because there is a lot of work," Andagan said. "So many Filipinos are degree-holders, but they can't find work."

Seven Valley hotels, with the assistance of an international recruitment company, brought the employees here for the first time this year on seasonal employment visas known as H-2Bs.

The hotels say the international workers fill a void. Because unemployment is below 4 percent, they get few applications and have been forced to rely on temp agencies and even homeless shelters for labor.

But the new trend is to attend employment fairs in places such as the Philippines, Jamaica and Eastern Europe, where wages are minimal, jobs are scarce and workers are more than willing.

Family ties

Andagan earned a bachelor's degree in commerce with an emphasis in management and worked 17 years for a top hotel company in his native Philippines, an island nation of 84 million people off the southeast coast of Asia. At the Princess in Scottsdale, he knows laundry workers who were teachers, housekeepers who were advertising executives.

His hometown's economy is so depressed that the lowest job in America is more lucrative than the highest job there, he said. A month's pay in the Philippines was $500, which would not buy him a single night at the luxury resort during the high season.

Now, he makes $2,000 a month. In a matter of weeks, he worked his way up from a room attendant to a housekeeping supervisor. Like most of his co-workers, he works overtime, saves up and sends money to his family. His new bounty will put his 19-year-old son through college.

In exchange, he is giving up time with his son. Many workers left spouses or babies behind.

"I always call my son, every day," Andagan said. "I miss my family, the happenings every day. All of my friends are there hanging out every day going to Starbucks."

He doesn't go to Starbucks here, he adds, because it is more expensive.

The H-2B workers form a seasonal family to fill the void. They live together in apartment complexes, and hotel vans transport them to and from work. They walk to the grocery store or, on a special day, ride the bus to the Filipino market in north Phoenix. They cook for one another and fill local restaurants. This winter, they visited the Grand Canyon and traveled to Flagstaff to get a first-hand look at ice.

A path to citizenship

Valley resident John Bergmann brought the Filipinos to this foreign place.

Bergmann developed a passion for working with international employees when he was human resources director for Hyatt Regency Scottsdale Resort and Spa.

He left the resort to effectively open a branch for an international recruitment company called Delivering Human Innovation, or DHI, based in Orlando. He became a Phoenix-based independent contractor for the company last spring and believes it is the first of its kind in Arizona.

While Bergmann's service is still somewhat of a novelty, seasonal visas are not.

Arizona's largest hotel, the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort & Spa, has hired Jamaican workers for years through a Texas-based recruitment agency.

Hotels say they look for workers in English-speaking countries with service-oriented cultures.

The U.S. Department of Labor grants up to 66,000 H-2B visas every year, according to its Web site. But considering that those are parceled out among dozens of countries, they can be difficult for workers to obtain.

As a result, the visas are highly coveted.

"Some embassies feel they have sent enough workers over, so they are not going to approve any more," Bergmann said. "We recruit so heavily from the Philippines and have had such great success there, I think we know the well is going to dry up and we have to find some other good resources."

The rules of seasonal visas are clearly defined.

Hotels must advertise jobs in their own community first to ensure that American workers won't be displaced.

Before they arrive, international workers undergo drug tests and background checks and pay about $1,000 in processing fees.

Once here, visa-holders earn at least minimum wage and pay taxes. They can stay in one city for up to 10 months, and they can bounce between seasonal destinations for up to three years.

The workers must go home and reapply for the program after three years, or they can apply for a green card to stay in the United States. After that, they can apply for citizenship.

Virtually all the Filipino hotel workers are clamoring to "roll" to another property. Their Arizona jobs end May 31, when the heat drives hotel guests away. Andagan said many international workers see the seasonal visa as a path to citizenship.

"It's only my dream," he said of coming to America. "It's really hard to enter this country. When you go to the embassy, nobody can pass. Now, I'm here. This is it." He said he will stay as long as he is allowed.

Alfie Javier does not want to leave, either. The 25-year-old works as a restaurant server assistant at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa, just south of Phoenix. He sends money to his parents in the Philippines and is trying to secure work at another Sheraton to prolong his stay.

"I only wish the program didn't have to end," he said in an e-mail.

Despite the Filipinos' success here, guest-worker programs are not without controversy.

Last month the Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report that said many foreign laborers were at risk of being exploited or abused because employers knew that they couldn't seek other jobs if they were mistreated.

The report said, among other things, that many workers were promised higher wages than they were paid or were given fewer weeks of work than promised. Its publication comes as President Bush and Congress are working to expand the guest-worker program as part of an overhaul of the country's immigration laws.

Filling a need

Bergmann says he spends much of his time making sure the workers are comfortable and happy.

Before they arrived, he was responsible for arranging visas and air transportation. He met the workers at the airport and helped them track down affordable housing.

Now that they are here, he regularly acts as a liaison between the workers and hotels, hosting meetings at each of the properties and talking with some employees one on one.

Part of his job is to listen to their concerns and to make sure they are doing well in their new, albeit temporary, home.

"They are so funny," he said. "They are quiet when their bosses are in the room, but the minute their bosses leave, their hands shoot up."

They flood him with questions: How do you get along with co-workers? How do you update a resume? How do you roll to another hotel?

The hotels, meanwhile, say they are thrilled with the new crop of workers, and most want to bring even more to town when the next high-season comes around.

The Princess, for example, will bring back its 45 Filipino workers, and it is requesting visas for 50 more.

The Westin Kierland Resort and Spa employs 80 Filipinos, more than any other hotel in the state, and hopes most will return.

It even added Filipino cuisine to its cafeteria menu and offers free Internet access to make the employees feel welcome.

"They're just terrifically upbeat, smiling, warm people," Managing Director Bruce Lange said. "They are several thousand miles from home, but we provide them with some outreach to make it as comfortable a transition as possible."

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