More than a living

International workers gradually reshaping local work force

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STEAMBOAT SPRINGS

There are no careers in Chihuahua for people who lack a high school education. Sabino Corral knows it all too well.

Corral works two jobs in Steamboat Springs and sends money to his family in Chihuahua, Mexico, so his nieces and nephews can go to a good school.

"I help my brothers, my family." Corral said. "It's why I need two jobs. The first thing is the school. If you don't go to school in Mexico, you don't have nothing."

Corral, 46, is single and has no children. He came to the United States seven years ago for a visit, obtained a six-month work permit that he continues to renew and has never returned to his native land. He is afraid that if he goes home for the holidays, he won't be allowed to return.

He hasn't attained citizenship yet, but says, "soon, maybe, I hope."

"I want to stay in Steamboat for a long time," Corral said. "My life is better here."

Corral is part of a diverse international workforce that is playing an increasing role in the local economy. It's a trend that everyone in the business community acknowledges. However, the impact of foreign workers has not been measured in terms of dollars.

Workers from Australia and New Zealand typically find employment at the ski area. Workers from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries are working in stores, restaurants and on construction crews.

The 2000 Census counted 634 Hispanic or Latino residents representing 3.2 percent of Routt County's population of 19,690.

Scott Ford, director of the Steamboat Springs Economic Development Council, said the size of the payroll for international workers within various industries is unknown, as is the portion of their wages that turns over in the local economy. Even less is known about the impact undocumented workers have on the local economy, but Ford said it's reasonable to assume there is an impact.

"We know what the lake looks like, but we don't know what all the islands in the lake look like," Ford said.

Corral begins his working day at Chase Oriental Rug Co. at 10 a.m. and works until 5 p.m., helping customers, making deliveries and cleaning. He takes about an hour for dinner before reporting for a 6-to-10 p.m. shift at a commercial cleaning job, then goes home to a trailer park. Corral says he isn't left with much time for recreation in his life, but says he has more than 20 friends in Steamboat and loves to play tournament billiards.

"That's my hobby," he said.

Unlike Corral, many Mexican workers with jobs in Steamboat routinely come and go with the seasons. Mark Tarzian, who owns Windemere Landscape and Garden Center with his wife, Talina, said his ability to recruit a work force of up to 20 Mexican nationals is a big part of his business success.

"When we bought the business five years ago, one of the issues was being able to staff a seasonal business," Tarzian said.

Hiring and training a different transient group of employees each season was costing too much money, Tarzian said. Plus, he found the typical Anglo "ski kid" who typified the local landscaping employee was difficult to depend on. Too often, he found such employees would take off to go kayaking on a day they were scheduled to work, leaving him short-staffed.

"We were looking for employees who cared abut their jobs and wanted to be a part of something," Tarzian said.

When Tarzian and his wife, who is of Mexican and Portuguese descent, decided to look outside the country for employees, they went about it in a methodical way.

"We looked into different legal programs and settled on H2B visas," Tarzian said. "It's been a pleasant success."

Tarzian has been able to hire a seasonal, but stable work force that returns every April 15. Most of the workers return year after year, fully trained and ready to fit into a role in his nursery yard or on a landscaping crew.

"We have people who are thrilled to be a part of our business," Tarzian said.

Maria Porter's company, Viable Resources, specializes in helping Routt County employers connect with international workers. Her business has reached the point that individuals in other countries contact her to let her know that they are ready to return to the United States for an employment stint.

Porter thinks there is a perception among U.S. citizens that all foreign workers share a goal of remaining in the United States permanently, but that is far from the case, she said.

Porter said many of her clients hiring international workers are seeking to fill restaurant and housekeeping jobs.

She said over time she has seen U.S. workers become less and less interested in housekeeping jobs, even though they pay well.

"Housekeeping is a physically demanding job," Porter said. "Over time, people have become more selective in what they'd like to do. They realize it's seasonal versus career employment, and they know they'll get laid off."

Tarzian said his company makes an effort to ensure his international employees are happy in their jobs, and the resulting loyalty adds to his company's success. He invests in English and Spanish language classes for his employees. Windemere also engages a local consulting company for advanced translation services to smooth over any confusion among employees.

Pat Berka of Colorado Professional Builders acknowledges the language barrier has discouraged him from hiring Mexican construction workers.

"In the past, we have employed quite a few," Berka said. "Now, we don't have any. The language barrier just killed us."

Berka said the Mexican nationals he formerly hired were, for the most part, exceptionally hard workers who were on time every day. But he was never able to establish one of them as a lead carpenter because he struggled to explain complex tasks. He expresses some regret at not having attained some level of fluency in Spanish.

Ford said he has a difficult time contemplating international workers without thinking about the historical role of immigrants in American society. In many ways, he said, contemporary workers coming here to seek opportunity are no different from the Europeans who came here in the last century to start a better life.

Ford theorizes that international workers who have the makeup to leave their homes and face an uncertain future share the personality traits needed to become successful entrepreneurs. Historically, they have been a factor that has continuously refreshed America's capacity to reinvent itself, he said.

"That nature that made you go through all of the brain damage necessary to come here is a raw human resource when you integrate it into our economy," Ford said. "It's the right stuff coming over the border."

Ford takes it a step further and notes that the American currency workers send back to Mexico -- or Eastern Europe or West Africa or another continent -- represents the most efficient form of foreign aid the United States could ever hope to accomplish.

"It is a form of economic development we could never do on a national level because it is so focused," Ford said. "You could not set up a government program to distribute aid" as efficiently.

Ford acknowledges that there are painful displacements in the economy as a result of a growing international work force. An influx of workers in entry-level employment leads to stagnating wages, he said. And U.S. citizens are forced to acquire new skills to differentiate themselves in the workplace. On the other hand, Ford said, the Bush proposal to bring the 10 million to 12 million undocumented workers into the light could result in the collection of Social Security and Medicare benefits that would buy the nation more time to meet the challenge of caring for aging baby boomers.

Tarzian agrees with Ford that when people look at personalities instead of borders, they see the international work force differently.

Specifically, Tarzian sees a longtime employee known to his colleagues simply as "Patron." The man is 61 years old but the hardest worker of his Mexican employees.

Patron goes home every winter to the state of Tabasco where he has 16 children, 14 of them adopted. The pattern of his life has been to adopt disadvantaged children in an effort to provide them with a better quality of life, Tarzian said. His employment in Steamboat allows him to accomplish that.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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