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Sting of New Immigration Law Felt in a Labor-Short County : Hotels/Owners Could Be Forced to Lure Workers With Higher Wages

October 18, 1987|MARY ANN GALANTE

Labor specialists have predicted for the past year that Orange County hotels were doomed to vacancy rates such as they'd never seen before--but for employees rather than guests.

The county's pool of workers is so small and the threat of immigration reform sanctions so great, they said, that beds would go unmade, floors unswept and dishes unwashed.

Although most local hotels have been able to maintain their service standards, hoteliers unanimously complained that there simply aren't enough workers to go around.

To attract new employees in some departments, the Marriott in Anaheim recently began offering a bounty of $25 a head to employees who refer new recruits, and other establishments said they may raise wages.

The new immigration rules have affected hotel work forces in several ways. For example, undocumented aliens who can seek amnesty "don't have to live in the shadows anymore," said a human resources director with one Anaheim hotel. "They're beginning to come out and push for better positions. And it's having a definite impact on us."

In the last several years, Orange County has become saturated with hotels--all of them competing for the best possible job applicants. And just about every hotel is seeing the number of applicants decline.

Some workers, realizing that they will not qualify for amnesty, have already quit jobs to return to their homelands. Some hotels report that up to 15 workers have left for that reason since the beginning of the year.

"People are more fearful to apply for jobs they used to because of the crackdown," said Kevin Calliham, human resources director at the Holiday Inn in Buena Park. In Orange, the Doubletree has seen a 25% reduction in applications since mid-May, to an average of about 10 per day, said Bonnie Granger, human resources director there.

With fewer workers and applicants, the act already seems to be affecting hiring patterns at some area hotels.

At least local two hotels--the Holiday Inn in Buena Park and the Doubletree in Orange--are raising wages to lure more recruits. At the Holiday Inn, where housekeepers and dishwashers had been starting at $3.50 to $3.60 per hour, "we're looking at $4.10 to $4.20," Calliham said. The minimum wage is $3.35 per hour.

So even though the expected wage increase will trim the hotel's bottom line by $50,000 to $60,000 annually, Calliham insists it's needed because the unskilled "can go into factories that'll offer them $4.50 to $5 an hour."

"Let's be realistic," said one Orange County executive who asked not be named. "It just makes sense there will be greater competition for a smaller pool of employees." The executive believes the law "absolutely" will force hoteliers to increase hourly wages.

The bright side--for employers, at least--is that some aliens who lack documentation will be locked into their current employment. "If someone knows he'll have to come up with valid credentials, he'll be much less likely to look at other possibilities and more conscientious about adhering to internal rules," said Thomas Perry, director of personnel for Hyatt Hotels in Chicago.

The hotel industry is also better able to pass along increased costs to consumers than some other businesses. "We've got more room if our backs are against the wall than, say, a farmer," said one Anaheim executive who asked not to be identified. "We can adjust rates. But nobody's going to pay $9 for a head of lettuce."

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