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Short staffs are a bear for parks

Visa delays are leaving popular tourist spots like Yosemite without the foreign laborers who take on the dirtiest jobs.

May 27, 2007|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — From Ukraine to Ecuador, scores of young maids and dishwashers are having trouble getting U.S. visas this spring -- and that means trouble in Yosemite Valley.

"I've been making beds and scrubbing showers," said Tracy Rogge, vice president of operations for park concessionaire Delaware North Cos. The chief operating officer "cleaned toilets and bagged groceries. Our director of finance was making burgers. This really caught us off-guard."

Laura Chastain, recruiting manager for Delaware North, estimates that she is 300 employees short. "I don't sleep at night right now," she said.

Concession managers in Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone national parks bring in hundreds of foreign workers annually from Eastern Europe, South America, Asia and Southern Africa because, they say, they cannot recruit American youths to fill the dirtiest jobs in the park's kitchens and hotels.

At Yosemite, those foreign workers make up more than 20% of the summer workforce and about half the park's housekeeping staff. At Yellowstone, they constitute one-third of a 2,600-worker summer crew. At the Grand Canyon, the ratio is about one foreign worker for every three domestic ones.

This shift in makeup has attracted little notice, perhaps because so many recruits land in "back-of-the-house" jobs. But this spring -- as President Bush and Congress began to wrestle again over immigration policy -- scores of would-be Yosemite workers hit a snag in their visa paperwork. That left park managers facing a staffing shortfall and has raised a pair of awkward questions.

Can these national parks can get along any more without international workers? And will Yosemite have its act together in time for the summer rush that begins this weekend?

"What we have found is that American kids, up to their mid-20s ... don't want to wash pots and clean kitchens and cut onions and be rooms-keepers making beds," said Joe Levesque, Delaware North's vice president for human resources. "So we have had to turn to these international workers."

Delaware North grossed more than $110 million last year as the principal concessionaire at Yosemite -- the richest single contract in the national park system. Xanterra Parks and Resorts handles commercial operations at several national parks, including Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.

Both companies said that they started bringing in foreign workers about seven years ago and that their dependence on them had grown even as attendance at national parks fell slightly.

Because of English-language requirements, few of those workers are from Mexico. Instead, the roster is dominated by people from more distant lands, from Peru to Poland, South Korea to South Africa.

The Jamaicans at Mount Rushmore worked out especially well last year, said Steve Tedder, a vice president at Xanterra, as did the Thais at Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks. And at Crater Lake, a group from the Dominican Republic "ran our whole housekeeping department," Tedder said. "They were great."

Unlike the thousands of foreign workers who serve American cruise-ship customers for less than the U.S. minimum wage, these laborers are protected by state and federal labor laws, and they typically earn the same pay and benefits as their homegrown colleagues, park managers are quick to say.

At Yosemite, that means wages beginning at the state minimum, which will increase from $7.50 to $8 an hour in January. Health benefits begin after three months, and American and foreign concession workers alike are represented by Service Employees International Union Local 521.

"It does add a nice international flavor to the park," SEIU internal organizer Debra Rockwood said. But the current worker shortage, Rockwood added, shouldn't be blamed on lazy Americans. It's what happens, she said, when "the company doesn't try and look at what it needs to do to employ an American workforce. We have pretty good wages, but they need to treat employees like a valued asset...."

Delaware North managers disagree with Rockwood's criticisms; they trace this year's troubles to March, when they realized that the pace of visa petitions through federal offices had slowed dramatically. Then they learned that the Labor Department, facing a boom in petitions for 10-month H-2B visas in recent years, had decided to increase uniformity by consolidating six processing centers into two. In that shift, the agency fell weeks behind.

Immigration legislation currently before the U.S. Senate could bring relief. One provision would more than double the number of temporary visas issued annually.

Other parks that rely on different kinds of visas were unaffected, but by early May, visitors to Yosemite Lodge were finding signs that said, "The foreign workers we expected to have in place at this time are experiencing visa problems. As a result we do not have the staffing levels we desire."

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