- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 16, 2004

FREDERICK, Md. — A few months’ work in the Maryland sun means thousands of dollars for Zlatin Genchev to bring home to Bulgaria.

In the United States, he’s a 27-year-old lifeguard, one of many Europeans hired by pool management companies for seasonal jobs averaging $7 an hour.

But back home, Mr. Genchev is increasingly a man of means. He’s got a bachelor’s degree in administration and politics, and a home under construction in Varna, the Black Sea resort town where he lives with his parents.

The lure of such jobs in the United States and Western Europe may leave Bulgaria short of certified lifeguards this year, the Red Cross there says.

Mr. Genchev just shrugs. He says it’s an annual problem in his economically distressed country, where the average monthly income is $170 and an estimated 700,000 young people have left to find work.

“If you looked 10 years ago, five years ago, you would see this also,” he said. “Plus, it’s a little bit more better money here, too.”

Seasonal industries have been importing workers for 15 years, said Mr. Genchev’s boss, Rob Fox, recruitment director for Century Pool Management of Kensington. He said the trend began at resorts and theme parks and spread to pool management companies like his and dozens of competitors servicing pools at municipalities and apartment complexes in the Washington suburbs.

Mr. Fox said workers from Bulgaria, Serbia, the Czech Republic and other Eastern European nations will account for 20 percent to 30 percent of the 2,000 persons he hires this season.

“Hiring lifeguards is difficult,” Mr. Fox said. “There’s a lot of turnover, a lot of employees coming and going throughout the summer with colleges and soccer games.”

It’s a bigger problem in states with distinct seasons than in the South and Southwest, said Suzanne Barrows, spokeswoman for the National Spa and Pool Institute of Alexandria.

“Our members find it difficult to ramp up and hire the labor that they need because they can’t employ people year-round,” she said. “It’s not taking away jobs from Americans; it’s filling a need that Americans just aren’t able to fill.”

An Associated Press investigation last year found that some Eastern Europeans are exploited by contractors who lure them to America for illegal menial jobs, only to skim their paychecks and leave them subject to arrest and deportation.

Mr. Fox said his company scrupulously observes the terms of its workers’ temporary visas.

“It is of the utmost importance for us as a company that we bring in people who are going to go home, so even if there’s an employee who absolutely falls in love with America, they’re going to go home at the end of the season,” he said.

Mr. Fox said Century wants its foreign workers to have a good experience so they’ll come back again — like Mr. Genchev.

Now in his fourth year with Century, he has advanced to a supervisory position, overseeing three other lifeguards at a community pool in the Frederick area.

He arrived in April to start preparing as many as 50 pools in the area for opening, and during the off season he trains other lifeguards in Bulgaria as a certified Red Cross instructor.

In America, Mr. Genchev lives with three other lifeguards in a two-bedroom apartment at one of the complexes they service.

Their employer pays the rent and deducts it from their pay, Mr. Fox said.

At the end of the season, there’s time for a couple weeks of sightseeing. Mr. Genchev said he and some friends visited Ocean City, New York and Niagara Falls last year — but he’s learned to limit his fun.

“As long as we stay here, we’ll spend more money here,” he said. “You have a good time here for four months and go back with a couple thousand bucks.”

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