MIAMI — In South Florida, it was another record tourist season, and the $4 billion-a-year hotel industry is building dozens of new properties.
The big problem, though, is staffing, and a critical labor shortage.
"We just weren't getting the talent level nor the applicants that we needed," says Gino Caliendo, general manager at the Hyatt.
In the Florida Keys, the Cheeca Lodge couldn't find enough local employees. Skyrocketing housing prices chased away most of the blue-collar workers, so the Cheeca and other hotels went overseas to staff the busy tourist season.
"We get them from Jamaica, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic," says Jerry Broz, general manager at Cheeca Lodge.
Ioana Dinca is a Romanian lawyer but earns much more as a restaurant server in the U.S. and sends money home.
"I think it's good for the workers and for the hotel," Dinca says.
Ioana and other workers live in cottages and apartments subsidized by the Cheeca Lodge. The luxury Miami Beach hotel Setai houses its overseas workers in another hotel.
More and more foreign workers are being hired now under a visa program known as H-2B. It allows employers to bring in seasonal help, as long as they're paid the same as Americans. Last year, 122,000 workers entered the United States that way. Labor advocates worry some could be exploited.
"That employer has tremendous power over them, because the minute they complain they can be deported," says Eliseo Medina with the Service Employees International Union.
But Densil Angus from Jamaica says he's grateful and eager to work here.
"You bank some money, and you get things for your family and friends," Angus says.
"Their biggest frustration is that we don't give them enough hours," says Alice Brennan, hiring director at Cheeca Lodge. "They want to work seven days a week."
For many, it's a new opportunity, and one that hotel owners say is also crucial to their success.
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