Short staffs are a bear for parks

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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."

Despite six-day workweeks and overtime efforts by on-the-scene Delaware North staffers, those visitors found that housekeeping was hours behind schedule and managers were filling in at front-line positions. A spokesman said he had seen no increase in guest complaints, but this weekend will be a big test.

The pool at Yosemite Lodge, for instance, is supposed to open, but it won't unless management can find some lifeguards quickly. It's still unclear how many of those foreign workers will arrive in time for the season.

"We have 50 people that are awaiting interviews with the U.S. Embassy in Kiev," Ukraine, Chastain said.

A Labor Department spokesperson acknowledged the backlog but declined to comment on Yosemite's status, adding that "we recognize it's a serious issue."

Unable to wait, Delaware North said it hired 88 Americans last week. American college students will arrive almost as soon as finals are over. But when they return to school in August, the park's managers will again be eager for foreign aid.

"It's not difficult work. I don't understand why it's difficult to find Americans to work here," said Ronal Beck, a 39-year-old culinary school graduate from Durban, South Africa.

Beck took her first Yosemite assignment as a pantry worker in May 2004. On arrival, she was surprised to discover 40 South Africans. "I've met Jamaicans, Indonesians, Brazilians, and people from Kenya and Ghana," she said. "I've traveled the world in one place."

Now Beck works as a junior cook in Curry Village, drawing $10.52 an hour. Her medical benefits are "great," she said, adding, "I'd like to come back every year, but I've got family at home."

Scott Gediman, a Yosemite-based spokesman for the National Park Service, said the service, which is forbidden to hire foreigners, had faced similar recruiting challenges. "These types of jobs are not as attractive to young people as they used to be," he said.

Foreign workers, usually recruited through private agencies that do initial screening, pay for their own transportation to the park, stay up to 10 months and are less likely than Americans to leave early, even if they're unhappy. Like most concession employees, the foreign workers typically live in the park and have meals and housing costs deducted from their paychecks.

"Basically, they're a trapped workforce," the SEIU's Rockwood said.

But Geoff Watson, president of San Francisco-based Intrax Cultural Exchange, which matches foreign workers with American employers, said the workers "want to have that quintessential American experience." In the last nine years, Watson said, his company has gone from supplying no park workers to providing about 1,000 to parks, including Yosemite, Alaska's Denali and Yellowstone, usually on four-month visas.

Both Watson and Xanterra's Tedder said they expected international hiring in the park system to increase. But in Yosemite, Delaware North's Levesque is leaning the other way.

Among the prospects his recruiters have recently targeted are new military enlistees who have months to pass before reporting for duty and youths from the California foster-care system, who often find themselves at loose ends when government support programs stop at age 18.

Richard Louv, author of the 2005 book "Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder," said he wasn't surprised that park recruiting had taken this turn.

As suburbs encroach, indoor distractions multiply and parental fear of uncontrolled settings widens, "we're actually making it against the rules to go outside and play in nature," Louv said. "There are huge implications to that, and you're seeing one of them."

christopher.reynolds@ latimes.com

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