OCEAN CITY – Most agree Ocean City could not survive without the thousands of foreign seasonal workers who descend on the resort each year and gobble up the jobs once filled by American kids, but not everybody is completely enamored with the largest segment of the town’s workforce.
The foreign workers begin to arrive in the spring and, for the most part, stay long after their American counterparts head back to school or grow tired of their summer jobs. They often work two or three jobs around the clock and take positions nobody else wants. The foreign workers can be found waiting or bussing tables, behind store counters, cleaning hotel rooms and everywhere in between, providing a reliable, if not always understandable, workforce for a town that swells to a population of nearly 300,000 in the summer months.
Clearly, they are needed and wanted in Ocean City, and as a result, there is a vast safety net in place to help them find jobs and places to live and help them with travel visas and diplomatic issues. Often heard are stories of the foreign workers being exploited and mistreated, and many of them are true, but little is said when the exploited become the exploiters.
Downtown property owner Gina Mariani, who rents housing to as many as 220 foreign summer workers each year, has heard the sob stories about their mistreatment and she typically goes out of her way to make sure those she deals with are treated with compassion. Occasionally, such as was the case this week when several groups of foreign workers she rents apartments to abruptly left without warning, she feels like she is the one being used and abused.
When Mariani went into the apartments she rented to several of the groups of foreign workers who left unannounced this week, she was shocked by the condition her units were left in. There was food and garbage scattered throughout the units; piles of clothes and dresser drawers pulled out and lying on the floor; and dirty dishes, pots and pans piled high in the sinks with stagnant water overflowing down the front of the cabinets and onto the floor. Windows were broken and holes were punched in the walls, and bathrooms were disgraceful with sinks and toilets overflowing and mold growing everywhere.
While appalled by the condition of her units, Mariani was quick to point out not all of her foreign renters treat their summer housing the same way. She accommodates about 220 each year and said a quarter of them leave their apartments in such a deplorable condition. It’s also important to point out some American summer workers likely leave their seasonal rentals in equally despicable conditions, but the foreign workers are doing it with more and more frequency.
Mariani said this week she feels betrayed somewhat because she goes out of her way to be nice to the foreign workers because she knows some of them are exploited. While she understands renting to summer seasonal workers, regardless of their nationality, has inherent risks, she merely wants her renters to meet her half way.
“Whatever condition I give it to them in, I expect it back in something close,” she said. “I understand wear and tear and I know it’s a long summer, so I have some expectations about what they’re going to look like. But some of this is just ridiculous. They couldn’t try to trash the places on purpose and do a better job.”
What makes it more painful for Mariani and many of the property owners is that they’ve heard the stories of exploitation and go out of their way to make up for some less kind-hearted landlords and employers.
“Every year I see the sad stories about how they are mistreated and exploited, and I don’t doubt some of that is true, but I never see the other side of the story,” she said. “I try to be reasonable and I try to help them, but I often get taken advantage of.”
Mariani said she knows it is tough for the foreign workers to find decent housing when they get here and it is often equally difficult to afford a place even after it is found. For that reason, she said she prices her units in a range most can afford.
“I try to look out for them and be nice to them because I know they need a break,” she said. “I’ve read over and over how they can’t find a decent place to live and how they can’t afford it, so I set the prices to make it possible for them. I charge them a $300 security deposit – not $300 each, but $300 total.”
Ironically, it is the security deposit that often becomes an issue between the renters and the landlords, despite the condition of the units at the end. In one of the units abruptly vacated in horrible condition this week, the former tenants left a note for Mariani, the first part of which read like the Preamble and the second part of which read like a veiled threat about the security deposit. The note was adorned with a picture of an American flag and smiley faces and included a forwarding address in Missouri.
“We the people of A18 have managed the room in all possible ways,” the note reads. “We will come back next year and live in your apartments if you send our deposit to us for sure.”
What is sure is that the recently departed tenants won’t be getting their security deposit back and almost certainly will not be invited back next year. Mariani and her family have a plan in place to raze many of their old, downtown units and build a new, dormitory-style complex with 94-units on the site of the old Driftwood Apartments. The roughly $7 million project was approved last fall and is still in the works, but based on her recent track record with foreign summer workers, Mariani is now uncertain if she wants to move forward with it.
“We’re supposed to tear a lot of this old stuff down and build dorms next year, but after seeing this, I’m not sure we want to go through with it,” she said. “I’m not sure we’re ready to invest millions in that just so they can completely destroy them.”
Mariani is just one property owner out of the hundreds that cater to seasonal workers going through the same thing as another summer winds down. Many will find the same horror stories when they get back in their units after a long summer and some will find they have dodged a bullet with good groups of kids this year.
Longtime Ocean City resident and property owner B.T. Trumpower knows all about the pitfalls of renting to summer workers, foreign or otherwise, since he’s been doing it for about 25 years.
Trumpower said this week he has been in and out of some of his rental units this summer and has not seen the type of abuse witnessed at the Mariani properties, but he is withholding judgment about the summer of 2007 until the end.
“Knock on wood, I’ve been in many of mine and I haven’t seen too much of that,” he said. “Now I won’t know for sure until the end, but so far, it looks like I’ve been lucky this year.”
Trumpower said his experience with foreign seasonal workers has been a mixed bag with some nice and polite and clean and others just the opposite.
“In general, they’re pretty good kids,” he said. “Of course, like in any thing, there are bad eggs and I’m sure I’ll see my share of horror stories before it’s all over.”
While he acknowledged their importance to the summer workforce in the resort, Trumpower said the prevailing picture of them as overworked, underpaid and exploited is not always accurate.
“They are not the godsend everybody thinks they are,” he said. “I know the businesses rely on them, but they are not the best tenants. I’ve had more than my share of really bad ones over the years.”