Filling the gap 

Flathead businesses turn to foreign help

Twice in the last year, the Independent has reported on Flathead Valley construction companies hiring illegal immigrants to supplement the valley’s inadequate workforce. But while some employers have knowingly or unknowingly hired illegal immigrants to fill vacant positions, other valley businesses are increasingly hiring foreign students on temporary work visas.

Such businesses include Alpine Market, Grouse Mountain Lodge, Marcus Foods and other service-oriented businesses in Whitefish, and Glacier Park Inc., the concessionaire that operates Many Glacier Hotel, Glacier Park Lodge, Lake McDonald Lodge and other services for Glacier National Park.

Craig Brown is vice-president for government and partner affairs at San Francisco-based Intrax, which supplies workers to Flathead-area businesses including Glacier Park Inc. Intrax is one of the top three companies recruiting foreign students to spend summers working in the United States. Brown says the number of workers Intrax has sent to the Flathead valley has doubled in the last two years, from approximately 100 to 200.

Intrax is one of several companies that recruits student workers, and, for a fee of about $2,500, covers their plane tickets and temporary health insurance, provides a 24-hour emergency assistance hotline and helps them secure visas and other necessary documents. The student workers that spoke with the Independent used Intrax or Austin, Texas-based Alliance Abroad Group for this service.

But these companies do not always supply jobs and lodging. So the students go to other companies, including Chicago-based Hospitality and Catering Management Services (HCMS), which finds housing and recruits employers to participate in the student worker program.

Working with HCMS, Big Mountain ski resort plans to hire 65 foreign workers, mostly from Brazil, to fill temporary positions this winter.

“Over the last couple of seasons, we have been having trouble hiring the numbers of employees that we need to fill the jobs on Big Mountain,” resort spokesman Brian Schott told the Independent in an e-mail.

In a sparsely furnished room in downtown Whitefish’s Alpha Apartments, four Bulgarian college students, in town for the summer on temporary work-travel visas, talk about why they came to the United States.

They give the same reasons offered by Lauren Stone, the chief operating officer of Alliance Abroad Group, the recruitment company that brought three of them here: to see the states, learn English and make money.

But for the Bulgarians, the order is reversed.

“The most important thing is to make some extra money,” says Nikolay Raykov. His second goal is to improve his English, and then to see some of the country.

Likely he’ll be seeing the country only during the last month of his four-month stay. The visa he and his fellow Bulgarians hold, known as a J-1 work-travel visa, allows them to work for three months. The visa does not allow them to work the last month of their stay, so students often use their final month to travel in the United States.

While in Whitefish, they plan to spend nearly all their time working. Next week, all four start second jobs, which will bring their total weekly hours to about 70. All say they earn between $7 and $9 per hour.

Mehmed Ismail, a Bulgarian student working at Grouse Mountain Lodge this summer, says that in his country $250 would be enough for him to live comfortably for a month. He says when he came here last year he worked 80 hours per week and was able to save about $4,000 to take home.

“Yes, of course,” he says, “we come here first to make money.”

This year he may take even more money home. Through connections he made working in Whitefish last year, he was able to track down a job and an apartment independent of HCMS, which brokered his first visit to Whitefish.

He still had to pay $2,500 to Intrax, but his friends at the Alpha Apartments—in Whitefish for their first time—will pay quite a bit more to HCMS after paying their $2,500 to Alliance Abroad Group.

The paychecks of workers who get housing and jobs through HCMS go from their Whitefish employer to HCMS, which workers say takes about $2 per hour as a fee before paying them. Rent money—$250 from each of the five people sharing the two-bedroom apartment—is also sent directly to HCMS, which keeps a portion and forwards the rest to the landlord. According to the workers, other tenants at the Alpha Apartments pay $550 per month to rent a two-bedroom apartment.

“We knew that we would pay $250 per month,” Raykov says, “but we didn’t know that the apartment cost $550.”

Still, he and two of his roommates, Zhenya Blagoeva and Svetla Atanasova, agree that the cost is worth it.

HCMS did not return calls seeking comment, but Alliance Abroad Group’s Stone notes that it’s not unusual for foreign workers in the United States to pay finder’s fees out of their hourly wages to companies that line up jobs for them. As for the rent premiums, she says HCMS takes on considerable risk by signing leases on apartments for young students who may damage the apartments or not show up at all, leaving HCMS to pay the rent. Also, she notes, it can be difficult for foreign workers on their own to find housing that allows short-term leases.

The biggest winners in this exchange may be Flathead-area employers, who don’t pay anything to the companies that connect them with foreign workers. Karen Baker, human resources director for Grouse Mountain Lodge, says her company has been hiring student workers for four years.

“They’re great employees,” she says, “and it’s gotten so hard to find people to work here, it’s hard to stay in business.”

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