|By John Lantigua, The Palm Beach Post,
Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Oct. 18, 2011--A plan hammered out by a county commissioner, state Workforce Alliance officials and representatives of local country clubs and hotels aims to reduce hospitality jobs in Palm Beach County that go to foreign guest workers.
The plan, made public by Commissioner Burt Aaronson, calls for an initial 15 percent reduction in imported foreign workers.
"But ultimately my goal is to prepare local people to take those jobs and try to eliminate those foreign guest workers altogether," Aaronson said. "We'll see if that is possible."
A Palm Beach Post investigation discovered that last year Palm Beach County country clubs, other private clubs and hotels were approved for 1,552 H-2B visas issued by the U.S. Department of Labor, which allows them to import foreign workers as housekeepers, waiters, kitchen personnel and groundskeepers.
With unemployment in the county at 11 percent, the importation of workers has drawn criticism from leaders in minority communities and concern from members of Congress.
The new county plan calls for greater local recruiting efforts by employers and more training programs to prepare workers for jobs in the hospitality industry.
"We would very much like to see more local people going to the country clubs and hotels for those jobs, but they have to have the qualifications and the right attitude for those service jobs," Aaronson said.
Aaronson's plan coincides with an effort by the Labor Department to make employers pay foreign H-2B workers higher wages, which could drive employers to seek more local employees.
But there are also indications that some employers are instead shifting from H-2B visas, administered by the Labor Department, to J-1 visas issued by the U.S. Department of State.
The J-1 visas are designated for foreign trainees and interns in certain industries, but are used much like H-2B visas to import workers for hospitality venues. More than 1,900 such visas were issued to Florida employers last year, some of them in Palm Beach County.
While H-2B visas are tracked closely by the Labor Department, the State Department leaves the administration of J-1 visas to third-party sponsors and does not keep close track of exactly who employs them or how.
"There is very little oversight," said attorney Greg Schell of Florida Legal Services, who has represented H-2B and J-1 workers in Florida. "No one at the federal level knows where they are. So as the Labor Department cracks down on the misuse of H-2B visas, of course you will see some employers flocking to the J-1's."
Schell said Aaronson will have to find a way to monitor J-1 visas used by county employers if he is to know that his program is succeeding.
Meanwhile, Aaronson's plan indicates the initial 15 percent reduction in those foreign workers will come about by targeting certain jobs.
"Focus will be increased on more easily filled positions, such as golf course maintenance, grounds keeping, facilities maintenance, carpenters, housekeeping, receiving, back-of-the-house and back office positions," the report said.
Tom Veenstra, a spokesman for the nonprofit employment agency Workforce Alliance, who helped with the report, said the goal is to achieve that reduction "in a one- to two-year time frame."
That effort has already made progress. Workforce Alliance said Friday that the Boca Raton Resort & Club, which was looking for 170 seasonal workers, has hired 45 with the help of Workforce Alliance and that additional candidates are being screened.
The Palm Beach Marriott Singer Island Resort & Spa has contracted a housekeeping supervisor through the alliance and has filled several other positions. And the Quail Ridge Country Club of Boynton Beach, looking for 70 employees, has staged a recruiting and screening event with the alliance.
Aaronson said filling waiter jobs and other positions that require more direct contact with the public is most difficult. The plan outlines various projects for training workers for those jobs, including collaborations with Lincoln College of West Palm Beach and with the Palm Beach County School District.
The Palm Beach County Hotel & Lodging Association will team with Workforce Alliance and with Workaway Staffing of Palm Beach Gardens, a private firm that has imported workers for local country clubs, to develop training programs.
William Mayville, president of Workaway, said two country clubs in the county, The Club at Admiral's Cove in Jupiter and Boca West, have proposed hosting academies for local young people who want to enter the industry.
"The idea is to hold classes as part of this academy during next summer and persons wanting to get into the industry would go through a 30-day training program, earn a certificate and they would automatically get hired by one of the clubs for that season," he said.
Some of the county's landmark hospitality venues and private clubs are among those importing workers: The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club & Spa in Jupiter; The Breakers, Mar-a-Lago, the Everglades Club, the Four Seasons and the Palm Beach Country Club, all in Palm Beach; Ballen Isles in Palm Beach Gardens; and Boca Grove Plantation, Boca Rio and the Polo Club, all in Boca Raton.
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