Coast casinos join trend using foreign workers to fill job gaps - Sunday 12th of June 2005

It's not uncommon to hear Caribbean accents in hotel halls because casino resorts employ hundreds of foreign workers for housekeeping and other hard-to-fill jobs.

Beau Rivage, Grand Casino Gulfport, Casino Magic Biloxi and Treasure Bay Casino have all received authorization from the U.S. Department of Labor to hire the workers. Casinos employed 544 foreign nationals last year, according to the latest federal data.

Sandra Campbell of Kingston, Jamaica, has worked at Beau Rivage for the past five years. With the buying power of her American job, she can afford to pay for one child's high school education and help with another's college expenses.

"You have responsibilities like bills to pay and a house to take care of," Campbell said. "Coming here is much better than working in Jamaica."

Most are from Jamaica. Besides the higher salary, there's the advantage of the currency exchange rate. One U.S. dollar is worth about $61 to $62 Jamaican dollars.

Other foreign nationals, especially college-age people from Eastern Europe and other locations, work here during their summers under another type of work permit.

Many people believe these foreign nationals take jobs away from Americans by working for less pay. But before any business can bring in foreign labor, it has to show that it has been unable to fill the positions. Once the foreign workers are hired, it must pay the state prevailing wage or, if there is a federal institution such as a military base in the same area, pay the federal hourly wage rate for the same type of job.

Kitchen helpers, for example, were paid $5.98 to $7.25 an hour on the Coast in 2004, depending upon where they worked.

Federal monitoring

The employment practices are monitored through the Department of Labor's H-2B program. The foreign workers cannot live in the United States permanently. They have to return to their homeland for two months a year.

A business has to prove to the federal agency that it has advertised the jobs and had no success in filling them.

"We like to hire local people and always search there first," said Mary Cracchiolo, a spokesperson for Beau Rivage. "We have a constant need for housekeepers. For those who apply, we guarantee an interview."

Veronica Strickland, director of operations for Practical Employee Solutions, recruits and places foreign workers with employers from her office in North Carolina. Her clients include Grand Casino Gulfport, Beau Rivage and Casino Magic Biloxi.

Strickland learned about the H-2B program when she was director of human resources at a resort in Myrtle Beach, S.C., during the 1990s.

"We were at a point to where we were going to have to stop taking reservations," she said. "We had management cleaning rooms. I was cleaning rooms. We had 800 units, a lot of them three bedrooms. We needed 115 to 120 housekeepers every day. You just couldn't find them."

Hiring Jamaican workers was such a success that other hotels wanted to learn about the program. In a few years, matching the workers with employers became a full-time business for Strickland.

"I introduced them to Jamaicans," she said. "I used them because they speak English. I thought that if you're going to bring anybody into a community and they're going to live there, they ought to be able to communicate with the residents."

Cultural blending

Jamaican cuisine, such as jerk chicken and rice and peas, is now commonly served in casino employee cafeterias. Jerk has also found its way onto a few of the restaurant menus.

Many of the workers have been coming here for years so the Coast has become a second home.

But even though Patricia Purchase spends most of the year in Biloxi, her heart is in St. Ann Parish, Jamaica, where she dreams of building a home for her family. She wants it to be two stories, with a patio and three bedrooms.

"It's going to cost a whole lot," she said, "but I keep coming here saving."

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