Resorts open a little earlier
To ensure they get their share of visa-limited foreign workers, summer hotels welcome winter guests for the first time.
Published March 24, 2005
MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. - The usual clip-clop of horses' hooves was nowhere to be heard on this resort island where automobiles are banned. Only the rumble of a passing snowmobile broke the silence as Jason St. Onge and Jennie Shanku entered the Grand Hotel, becoming the first winter guests in its 118-year history.
The luxury hotel opened for the season in early March, two months earlier than usual and not entirely by choice - managers expect to earn little profit. The schedule change was necessary to secure enough visas for seasonal foreign workers amid stiff competition for them from other employers.
The hotel needs its roughly 330 foreign workers for everything from trimming hedges to making beds during the summer rush, jobs that U.S. workers disdain.
"We've gradually lengthened our season and we'd been thinking about expanding into the winter," said John Hulett, managing director. "But the situation with our workers forced our hand."
The 385-room Grand Hotel is among many employers pushing for changes in federal laws and regulations dealing with temporary workers from other countries.
Even as many Americans struggle to find work, businesses like the Grand Hotel say they must bring in foreigners to fill jobs that U.S. citizens won't take, particularly lower-wage service positions. Some are in hospitality and food service, but as competition for workers intensifies, the labor shortage is being felt in industries as varied as construction, commercial fishing and carnivals.
A 1990 federal law limits to 66,000 the number of visas issued annually for seasonal foreign laborers. In 2004, for the first time, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received so many applications it had to turn people away before the fiscal year ended.
The cap for the present fiscal year was reached by early January. That could freeze out many seasonal employers seeking help this summer, because the rules ban businesses from applying for the visas until 120 days before the workers are needed.
U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., is among sponsors of bill to require that half the 66,000 visas be issued midway through a fiscal year, giving summer employers a better chance at getting a share. It also would exempt workers from the cap if they've received a seasonal visa within the past three years.
Employers have lobbied Congress to boost the visa ceiling, but Stupak said his colleagues were in no mood for that. Security concerns in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks are one reason, he said. Another is that immigration is politically sensitive because many believe it takes jobs from native-born Americans.
"At times I'll get letters from people in my district saying, "you don't need these foreign people; just hire locally,' " he said. "The truth is that if everyone in northern Michigan who wanted a job got one, we'd still have to bring in additional workers. But that's not an easy message to get across."
Hulett, who started working at the Grand Hotel as a bellman in the 1960s, said its work force then was entirely American. But as progressively fewer U.S. citizens showed interest, the hotel began hiring foreigners.
Nowadays, the 385-room hotel has about 600 people on the payroll. About 270 of them are U.S. citizens, primarily college students. The rest come from other countries.
"They're great workers, and we simply can't do without them," Hulett said.
The hotel usually opens in early May, meaning it couldn't apply for visas until January. This year, managers decided the risk of waiting was too great. So they moved up the opening date to March 1, enabling them to send in their paperwork earlier.
The move paid off; the visas were approved. But it forced the hotel to accommodate winter guests, which wouldn't have been possible a few years ago. Most of the sprawling, wood-frame structure isn't heated, and the wind-swept island is snowbound and often bitterly cold in winter.
But a new wing was opened in 2001, featuring 42 rooms and an adjacent four-room cottage that were heated and insulated. That's where customers are being housed until the summer season kicks in.
"You could call this a grand experiment," said Bob Tagatz, the hotel concierge and resident historian.
Managers concede that offseason guests are being treated to a slimmed-down version of the usual Grand Hotel experience.
The main dining room and bars are closed, as are the hair salon and shops that sell products clothing and jewelry. Meals are served in the Jockey Club, a small restaurant across the street. Or people can walk downtown to the handful of Mackinac Island eateries that stay open year-around.
As for other treasured amenities such as high tea - forget it. Guests will have to find their own entertainment, such as cross-country skiing or snowmobiling.
But a winter visit will offer one big advantage over the peak season: drastically reduced rates. All rooms are $119 per night, meals not included. The weekday double-occupancy rate in summer is $605, which includes two meals.
"The phone is ringing," Hulett said. "I think we're going to be very close to breaking even on this, and we may even make a little money."
[Last modified March 24, 2005, 01:19:16]
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