Labor Shortage Plagues Mt. Rainier's Paradise Inn

Jennifer Gordon in The Seattle Weekly, September 05, 2011

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Summer's belated arrival to Mt. Rainier has depleted visitation to the national park, and thrown its flagship restaurant into turmoil.

In its heyday, the 120-foot long dining room at Paradise Inn hosted celluloid celebrities and political leaders: Shirley Temple, Harry Truman, and Cecil B. DeMille all dined at the high-alpine inn, which earned Duncan Hines' commendation. But the restaurant has lately struggled to meet the high standards its founders touted, a failure its managing director attributes to the seasonal nature of the restaurant business at 5400-feet.

"It's always challenging up there because you lack continuity," David Wilde says, citing Paradise Inn's May through October operating schedule. "Particularly this year has been rather interesting because of the weather."

Wilde wasn't surprised to learn dinner service on a recent weekend dissolved into a chorus of guest complaints, as diners demanded a manager's explanation for warm water glasses, empty bread baskets, forgotten drink orders, and long-missing servers. "This place is terrible," the harried manager grumbled to a set of sympathetic guests.

Wilde blames the problems on extraordinarily high employee turnover this season. According to Wilde, staffers weren't charmed by record-setting levels of snow on the ground. In early August, there were 44-inch snow mounds surrounding Paradise, the unwelcome remnants of a bumper snowfall.

"One of the reasons they're there is to experience the National Park," Wilde says. Confronted by a colossal 907-inch annual snowfall and lingering cold temperatures, many young staffers opt to relocate to other parks. Although the 50 dining room employees sign contracts indicating their commitment to stay until season's end, Wilde says they're unenforceable.

Nearly one-third of Paradise Inn's dining room workers are non-U.S. citizens. Guest Services, the concessionaire which has managed the Paradise Inn account for 39 years, is an active participant in the J-1 visa Summer Work Program.

Unlike American workers, J-1 holders are not free to flit between employers. But as labor advocates have pointed out since 300 J-1 holders employed at a Hershey's distribution plant last month went on strike to protest their working conditions, they're also exempt from laws governing wages and health care coverage. Since the visa was inaugurated in 1961 as an educational endeavor, it doesn't incorporate any of the protections built into guest worker programs managed by the departments of Homeland Security and Labor.

"Increasingly, employers are recognizing this visa is a way to get cheap workers," says Fordham law professor Jennifer Gordon, who recently wrote a critical op-ed piece about the J-1 program for the New York Times. "They've got staff they know will stay all summer long."

When concessionaires who hire J-1's bid for federal contracts, the program results in "direct cost savings for the U.S. government," Gordon says.

Gordon has heard from unhappy J-1 holders in the food service industry -- including a student who crossed the globe to work at a McDonald's and earned so little take-home pay he ended up subsisting on cat food - but warns against assuming there are J-1 troubles at the Paradise Inn.

"It's not a Scarlet letter, where you wear a J and you're abused," she says. "But I think we're all increasingly aware of abuses."

Between ferrying prime ribs from the kitchen and refilling iced tea glasses, Paradise Inn's manager paused to grouse about the restaurant's "Romanian hostesses." But Wilde doesn't think poor communication between native-born and international staffers is undermining the hotel restaurant.

"It's general to the logistical issues of working in a remote location," Wilde says, outlining what happens when a manager forgets to place an order.

"In a normal environment, if someone forgets to order something, I can go to the store pick it up," he says. Atop a mountain, where deliveries "have to be off-loaded outside the park," a manager's oversight "can cause some significant issues."

Still, Wilde believes the restaurant is doing a reasonably good job of feeding the tourists who pile into Paradise Inn. Although the 200-seat dining room has been stripped of the glamour it radiated when the crown prince of Norway ate there, Wilde is confident most guests are pleased with their meatloaf.

"I would say when we look at comment cards and Trip Advisor, in general, we do a pretty good job of service delivery," he says.