Sidibe Amard, with Dabo translating, said he got $5.50 an hour to clean rooms at the casino hotel, so $44 gross a day, minus $14 a day to stay in the worker hotel where Clean Serve set him up, minus $6 a day to ride the commuter van that was provided, minus taxes and deductions for Natalie. His net for eight hours' work was $10 or $15. He quit after one day and moved on to Summit County.
Much like in a small town, the sudden appearance of Africans in Summit County has rumors flying, even among government officials: Clean Serve might be busing 100 Africans in from Denver each day; Clean Serve might be paying its workers less than minimum wage and raking the rest off the top ...
The Africans had paycheck stubs showing gross hourly pay of $6.50. Clean Serve officials offer varying profit pictures. The local Clean Serve representative, Jan Pilka, told me the corporation has placed 1,200 workers around the U.S. and makes $1 an hour on each ($48,000 a week total).
Clean Serve's CEO, Powers, interviewed by phone from his Atlanta office, said the corporation only has 300 to 400 workers in place around the U.S. - including 100 Africans - on a profit margin much slimmer than $1 an hour. He declined to say what the profit was. He said there were 50 Clean Serve workers in Summit County this season.
Powers also said the Africans and other hotel workers are paid by a separate corporation, Clean Serve Contract Labor Inc., of which he is also the chief executive officer. He said the second corporation, formed a few years ago, is about to change its name to International Labor Corp. The second corporation was formed after Clean Serve itself got involved in a multimillion-dollar dispute with Kmart.
Clean Serve was supplying janitors to several hundred Kmart stores coast-to-coast, but Kmart canceled the contract, amid allegations that some of the Polish-immigrant janitors were undocumented. The dispute grew into a federal-court lawsuit, with sworn allegations and denials of witness tampering by a Clean Serve officer (not Powers). A final judgment in the case is pending.
Powers said he and the corporation had nothing to do with the money the Africans paid to the recruiters in New York. He said the corporation taps recruiters around the U.S., wherever immigrants collect, and maintains a recruiting office in Eastern Europe. "We do have to rely on them from our end to connect with the labor pool."
In the U.S., the workers are placed "anywhere there's a labor shortage, any destination-type (resort) area."
He said the corporation is "building for the future" in ski country, planning to start operations in other ski towns around the West.
After taxes and deductions for Natalie, the take-home from the Clean Serve job at the Hilton was a slim $700 to $800 a month, out of which the Africans had to pay their ongoing expenses. Life here is far from cheap.
"Check out the McDonald's in Vail," another worker told me. "It used to be the most expensive McDonald's in the world, until they built one in Moscow and one in Beijing."
The McDonald's in Vail looks like any other McDonald's. An American flag flaps overhead. The manager, Steve Bradvica, sets the record straight: "I think we're the 11th in the world (in terms of prices). You got Tokyo, Sweden, Paris ..."
A Vail Big Mac runs nearly a buck more than a Denver Big Mac.
"We are the first African people to come here, and people don't know us," Dabo said. "It is very difficult first time."
To make the 120-mile round-trip commute from Kremmling to the Hilton job, Dabo's group chipped in on a succession of cheap cars. The cars kept breaking down and the missed work days meant even less income.
They had it worse than many other workers in ski country. Around the West, more and more ski-related businesses are so hungry for workers that they provide transportation and help with housing. Each morning, Wendy's fast food in Silverthorne runs a van load of workers all the way from the Denver area, up 60 miles of interstate and through a tunnel in the Continental Divide. The workers get paid for their commuting time. Some ride another 35 miles, over Vail Pass, to reach the Wendy's in Vail.
Some resorts and hotels here run vans and full-size buses over the snowy passes to gather workers from Leadville, an old mining town that is another bedroom community. A public bus system based in Eagle County also runs to and from Leadville during the worker rush hours.