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Trump not the only employer hiring foreign workers for low-wage jobs

In two centerpieces of his presidential campaign, Donald Trump promises to bring back jobs that have left the U.S. economy and to crack down on immigration.

Yet Trump routinely hires foreign workers at Mar-a-Lago, his club in Palm Beach, a disconnect that has drawn fire from his foes. Trump argues that there just aren’t enough qualified workers to staff hotels and clubs during Palm Beach’s tourist season.

The U.S. Labor Department signed off on Mar-a-Lago’s request for 69 foreign workers to take jobs as housekeepers, cooks and waiters during the 2015-16 high season. Wages range from $10.07 to $13.01 an hour. In 2014, the Labor Department granted Trump 90 visas for Mar-a-Lago. In 2013, the total was 87.

“It’s very, very hard to get people,” Trump said during Thursday’s presidential debate. “Other hotels do the exact same thing.”

Indeed, U.S. employers received permission from the federal government in 2015 to hire nearly 102,000 foreign workers through the H-2B visa program for low-wage workers. Palm Beach County employers — mostly country clubs such as Boca West and hotels such as The Breakers — were approved for nearly 1,600 H-2B visas last year, according to U.S. Labor Department data.

Trump said during the debate that workers don’t want temporary, seasonal jobs. But Palm Beach County employment experts say there are plenty of local job seekers willing to take those positions.

As the Hilton West Palm Beach prepared to open in January, CareerSource Palm Beach County, the public-private job placement agency, advertised 200 jobs. Some 800 people applied for positions as servers, bartenders, cooks, maids and security guards, said spokesman Tom Veenstra.

“At the height of tourist season, we were still able to get them a staff,” Veenstra said. “We’ve got a lot of people who can fill these types of jobs”

CareerSource has urged hotels and clubs to hire local workers, but employers continue to hire foreign workers by the hundreds.

The Breakers, for instance, received permission in 2015 to hire 131 foreign workers for the positions of food and beverage assistant, room attendant, cook helper and waiter. Wages range from $9.57 to $10.99 an hour.

Sometimes, Palm Beach County employers’ use of foreign workers takes an unusual turn. For years, Boca West Country Club has hired low-wage workers through the H-2B visa program. During the Ebola scare of 2014, the club sought to reassure members that its guest workers brought no risk of infection.

“We do not recruit from West Africa,” General Manager Jay DiPietro wrote in a letter to Boca West members. “This year’s international staff is coming from Romania, Ireland, and South Africa.”

Boca West Country Club won permission to bring in 287 workers for the 2015-16 tourist season, including 95 servers at $11 an hour, 57 server assistants at $10.25 an hour and 36 cooks at $13.01 an hour.

A partial list of Palm Beach County employers approved for H-2B visas in recent months:

  • The Club at Admirals Cove in Jupiter: 132 workers, including food servers, cooks, dishwashers and bartenders at $9.57 to $13.01 an hour.
  • Everglades Club in Palm Beach: 67 waiters at $11 an hour, 20 dining room attendants at $11 an hour, seven cooks and six recreational aides.
  • Ibis Golf & Country Club in West Palm Beach: 55 dining room attendants at $11.50 an hour and 14 line cooks at $13.01 an hour.
  • Mirasol Club in Palm Beach Gardens: 50 servers at $11 an hour, 22 line cooks at $13.01 an hour and six bartenders at $12.06 an hour.
  • Frenchman’s Creek in Palm Beach Gardens: 50 servers at $9.31 an hour.
  • Broken Sound Club in Boca Raton: 49 food servers at $10.25 an hour.
  • Wellington Training Stables in Wellington: 32 horse grooms at $12.44 an hour.
  • Old Salem Farm in Wellington: 23 horse grooms at $12.27 an hour.

Echoing criticisms by worker advocates, Sen. Marco Rubio said Trump uses the visa program to drive down wages.

“When you bring someone in on one of these visas they can’t go work for anybody else,” Rubio said during Thursday’s debate. “They either work for you or they have to go back home. You basically have them captive, so you don’t have to worry about competing for higher wages with another hotel down the street. And that’s why you bring workers from abroad.”

The positions filled with H-2B visas are temporary. While pay can include overtime, employers aren’t required to pay unemployment insurance or provide health benefits.

Workers have grown more scarce as Palm Beach County’s job market has strengthened. Unemployment fell to 4.5 percent in December.

And Veenstra acknowledged that some employers don’t allow gratuities, which poses a hiring challenge.

“Workers prefer tips, and some of these clubs have a no-tipping policy,” Veenstra said.

Employers typically hire attorneys to help them navigate the visa process, which requires approval by the Labor Department and vetting by the Department of Homeland Security. CareerSource Palm Beach County offers recruiting services for free, Veenstra said.

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