Foreign workers spur controversy

By Traci DiPietro
Staff Writer
Posted 5/18/07

POINT CLEAR — Sophia Garvey, 27, is one of 100 foreign workers being sponsored this year by the Marriott Grand Hotel Point Clear Resort & Spa.

Garvey left her 11-year-old son and her job as a high school teacher in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, to spend …

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Foreign workers spur controversy


POINT CLEAR — Sophia Garvey, 27, is one of 100 foreign workers being sponsored this year by the Marriott Grand Hotel Point Clear Resort & Spa.

Garvey left her 11-year-old son and her job as a high school teacher in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, to spend 18 months working in America under a J-1 visa program. She does it, she said, because she plans to pursue a career in the food and beverage service industry, and the training she receives at the Grand provides a good starting point for this new direction.

In addition to what she refers to as “outstanding training,” finances were a contributing factor in her decision to enter the program. In Jamaica, Garvey earned $100 a week. The Marriott, she said, pays her close to $400 per week. Even with rent, groceries and utilities, she makes far more than she did in Jamaica. Garvey keeps her expenses low and spends little or nothing on entertainment and recreation.

Her free time, she said, is spent reading or surfing the Internet, while her surplus money is sent home to her family.

Garvey does not plan to live in America. She will use her training, she said, to acquire employment in her own country. Under a J-1 visa, applicants must maintain a permanent residence in their home country and must depart the U.S. upon completion of their course of study. 

Staying in America is not an option for Garvey.

It’s not an option for Mario Costa, either. Costa, 25 and a college junior, works as a concierge at the hotel. He said he plans to return home to Argentina to finish school after his visa expires, and then pursue a career in hotel management in Spain.

Both workers said they feel that experience from their training at the Grand will provide a solid foundation on which to build a career. They said they feel fortunate to have been given the opportunity.


The workers are not the only ones who benefit.

David Clark, general manager, said the arrangement has tremendous benefits to the hotel and the guests. Foreign workers, he said, will work whenever they are needed; including holidays and weekends.

“These are great people. They are sincere, courteous, humble, and they are here to work,” said Clark. “I know we have youth like that here, I just wish they would come and apply.”

Clark said the hotel made repeated efforts to recruit local employees to fill employment positions before resorting to foreign workers, but despite their efforts, nearly 100 of the 600 positions remained vacant.

“We are required by law to prove that we have made every effort to hire locally before we are permitted to apply for foreign workers,” said Clark. “We have spent thousands of dollars running ads and hosting job fairs.”

When asked why the positions were so difficult to fill, Clark said he could only guess, but he thought one factor might be that the hotel operates on a seasonal fluctuation, with prime season beginning in March. This presents a problem for college and high school students, who are unavailable until May. In order to keep the hotel’s No. 4 position with Marriott in customer satisfaction, the Grand must remain fully staffed with reliable, service-oriented employees, said Clark.

Wages at the Grand have increased and are competitive, he said, but the Grand has a reputation for holding its employees to a high standard of accountability and professionalism. Clark said this may intimidate potential applicants, since many seem to have what he deemed as “a sense of entitlement.” These applicants, he said, are not content to work their way up through the ranks, learning the business from the ground up.

There is no place for such an attitude at the Grand, he said. A good employee is highly esteemed, and the management makes every effort to show their appreciation to all workers, he said, but humility and a heart for service is seen as the hallmark of a good employee.


The issue of the Grand’s hiring foreign workers and building housing for them had some Fairhope residents up in arms at Monday night’s City Council meeting.

The issue was not on the 23-item agenda, said Bob Gentle, council chair, but because council members had received a number of e-mails and calls from people voicing their concerns, he gave residents the time normally allotted to the mayor (who was absent) to publically address their concerns.

Most of their issues were over a housing development built on property adjacent to Fairhope High School. The development, built to house foreign workers, consists of six two-story modular homes.

Some residents say they fear the housing presents a security risk. Mike Sullivan, director of human resources at the Grand, said residents do not need to be concerned. He said that while American workers complete an application and interview process and what he refers to as “behavioral screening,” foreign workers must undergo interviews, criminal background checks and screening by the IMS Migration Services, customs and Homeland Security. It is a thorough process, he said.

Additionally, if these workers violate work ethics or break the law, they are sent home immediately. In the many years the Grand has used foreign workers, he said, there has never been an incident of a worker breaking the law. At least two have been sent back for work violations.

Fairhope resident Karen Wilson said she is angry because no one seemed to know about the housing until after it was built.

The development was built in an unzoned area, and the people never had a chance to voice their opinion.

“This is just another reason we need zoning,” said Wilson. Had zoning been in place, she said, things may have turned out differently.

The zoning issue had been raised at one time, but area residents had voted it down.

Gentle said what surprised him most about the situation was that the same people who had refused zoning were now angry that the city had no control over the development.

Prior to Monday night’s meeting, council members unanimously approved a 30-day moratorium on issuing building permits within the city’s permit area, an action that halts development until new building code and subdivision guidelines are presented to the Planning and Zoning Commission on June 4. However, the moratorium was not in place in time to stop the housing development that was already under way.

“The real issue here is the way things happen in this city,” said Wilson. “We need to get our politicians to take a stand. They are too passive. We need to elect a mayor and council that represent the people, not the developers. We need to clean the slate in 2008.”

Gentle said he was disappointed when a number of residents left the meeting at the end of the discussion. He said he would like to see people take more of an interest in all the agenda items, especially those related to how the city spends money.

“It really bothers me when I see a big issue like this, and everyone gets up and leaves without listening to information about city purchases,” said Gentle.

Residents on Monday also accused the Grand of not hiring back some employees after Hurricane Katrina, an allegation that the Grand denies.

The zoning issues raised in this article will be addressed in-depth in a subsequent news story.