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Nemacolin relies on foreign guest workers

| Sunday, Oct. 3, 2010

People from Ukraine, Uzbekistan, the Philippines, and other far-flung countries have been coming to the village of Farmington in Fayette County for years.

They work as housekeepers, waiters and janitors at the posh Nemacolin Woodlands Resort & Spa in the mountains about 13 miles southeast of Uniontown. In their off-hours, they live in nondescript apartment buildings off Route 40 in Wharton Township and shop at local convenience stores. They generally keep to themselves, local residents say, although the younger ones sometimes host loud parties late at night.

Many of these Nemacolin employees are among the 66,000 foreign guest workers whom the United States allows to enter the country every year through the H2B visa program. The rest are students, holding J-1 visas that allow them to work for up to three months.

"I help them when they come in and do the best I can," said Gina Hayden, a clerk at the Sunoco on Route 40. "Usually in a group, there's one that speaks English and can get what they need across."

"It's really hard to communicate with them," acknowledged Soni Fieldson, who works at nearby Stoney's Beer Distributor. "But they're nice."

Guest workers have become common at vacation spots such as North Carolina's Outer Banks and Ocean City, Md. Though there are far fewer guest workers in Southwestern Pennsylvania, some local employers say they could not get by without them.

Good-faith effort

Employers apply for permission to hire H2B workers through the Labor Department, and they must demonstrate that they made a good-faith effort to hire Americans before they are allowed to bring in foreign workers.

Labor Department records from 2009, the last year for which data is available, show that businesses in Allegheny, Westmoreland and Fayette counties requested more than 900 certifications that would allow them to hire H2B workers. Most of the employers were landscape companies, including Superior Scapes in New Stanton, which requested certification for 14 workers.

Nemacolin Woodlands applied for 250 worker certifications and received 234, the most of any employer in the region, records show. The positions the resort sought to fill included housekeepers, janitors, laundry workers, kitchen helpers and cooks at wages ranging from $7.15 to $9.50 per hour.

Nemacolin requested more certifications than any other employer, but according to General Manager Chris Plummer, it used a fraction of those.

Plummer said that at the end of September, the resort's 1,022 total employees included 35 H2B holders and 35 others holding J-1 visas. During the peak summer season, he said, the resort had about 90 foreign workers out of 1,200 total.

Guest workers filled in when the resort could not find employees locally, he said.

"This is at every resort in the country," Plummer said. "Would I rather have American workers• Absolutely. They don't cost as much, and they can stay longer."

A hotel or restaurant employer who offers good wages and benefits can find employees willing to fill those jobs, said Ivana Krajcinovic, a staff representative for Unite Here Local 57, which represents about 1,500 workers in the Pittsburgh region's hotel and hospitality industry.

"When an employer says they can't find workers, that really means they can't find workers who will work for poverty wages and no benefits," said Krajcinovic, a union representative in the hotel industry for 18 years.

Nemacolin works with Royal Palms, a Naples, Fla., company, to find its H2B workers, legally classified as contractors. Owner Aziz Obidov said Royal Palms handles visa paperwork and makes sure employees can work legally before supplying about 300 per year to resorts and hotels nationwide.

"It takes about six months to get someone into the country, and then they're closely watched," Obidov said. "We provide payroll, transportation, housing, all the logistics."

These services make hiring overseas more expensive than hiring locally, Plummer said.

Superior Scapes owner George Brown said six H2B visa holders from Mexico were working for the company this summer. It was the ninth year his company had employed guest workers, he said.

His son, George Brown Jr., said that while the company makes an effort to hire locally, "there's a lack of interest for the type of labor that we need."

"We can't get people to respond, and if they do, they don't last for longer than a week," the father said, noting that the work — digging ditches, raking and installing patios — is strenuous.

The business employs several of the same men year after year, he said, and he and his son have found them to be loyal, religious and hard-working.

The company pays for their housing and transportation, and the Browns said that hiring Americans would save them money.

Other vacation spots in Southwestern Pennsylvania said they do not hire from overseas, though some have in the past.

Anna Weltz, a spokeswoman for Seven Springs Mountain Resort in Somerset County, said that while the resort had once hired some Polish students through the J-1 visa program, no foreign workers were hired this year.

Kennywood Entertainment, which owns the Idlewild and Sandcastle theme parks, does not bring workers from overseas. "We have such a great pool of high school and college students, we've never had the need," spokesman Jeff Filicko said.

Public criticism

Less than 1 percent of Fayette County's population is foreign-born, according to the census. Although they stand out in Farmington, the Nemacolin workers attracted little attention elsewhere in the county until June, when a van transporting seven of them crashed on Route 381, killing Russian-born Zhanna Zofrin, 68.

Two months after the crash, 84 Lumber, whose president is Nemacolin owner and President Maggie Hardy Magerko, applied for a $15 million taxpayer-funded loan. The loan, sponsored by Fayette County, would come through the state Community Development Block Grant program, and the company said the funds would preserve 325 jobs. Nemacolin and 84 Lumber are separate entities, and the loan was unrelated to the resort.

At a public meeting held in Uniontown to discuss the loan, some county residents expressed concern that the immigrant workers at Nemacolin were taking jobs that could have gone to local people. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Fayette County had an average unemployment rate of 9.4 percent over the past year and hit 10 percent in August, when 6,700 were unemployed.

"That ticked a lot of people off," said Bob Foltz, who hosts a conservative radio talk show on Uniontown-based WMBS. Foltz said listeners began calling about the foreign workers shortly after 84 Lumber requested the loan.

Uniontown business owner Brian Oros, 49, has been one of the most vocal.

"How can they be talking about creating jobs when they're bringing in foreigners?" Oros asked. "I don't believe that they can't get people from here."

Plummer said the resort did all it could to hire locally.

"Everyone thinks we have foreign workers and students because it's cheaper," he said. "That's not true. If you want to work at one of the top resorts in the country, we need workers, and we want workers from Fayette, Washington and other counties."

Additional Information:

H2B visa program

• Allows up to 66,000 workers from selected countries to work seasonal, nonagricultural jobs in the United States for up to a year.

• The Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services screens applicants for the visas, but monitoring the workers after they enter the country is left to employers.

• The visa can be renewed for up to three years, then the visa holder must leave the United States for at least three months.

Source: Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services

Additional Information:

J-1 visa program

• Designed for students, it allows them to hold a temporary job and travel within the country.

• The visa is sponsored by a school, business or other organization. Terms for each visa holder vary.

• Student workers can be employed for up to three months.

Source: Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services

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