Living with the Cost of Imported Labor

By MANDY LOCKE

NANTUCKET - On a hot Tuesday morning, tourists clog Nantucket's cobblestone streets, strolling from boutique to art gallery to coffee shop.

Walking from Main to Centre streets, they sip a latte, buy a hooded island sweatshirt and brunch at the Jared Coffin House, knowing nothing of the obstacles this old whaling city has overcome just to serve them.

Nantucket's existence as a tourist destination - and no one denies the community's reliance on this engine - fully depends on imported labor.

And to be players in the tourist industry these days, business owners must invest in employee housing.

"Employers had no choice. They had to fold it into the cost of doing business," said Tracy Bakalar, executive director of the Nantucket Island Chamber of Commerce.

Employee housing - ranging from a four-bedroom house near downtown to the two-story dormitory near the airport - allows Nantucket to roll out the red carpet for more than 350,000 people visiting between June and August alone. Virtually every employer - from the police department, whose summer cops take over the old Coast Guard barracks, to SuperNatural Bakery, where a few workers sleep above the shop - provides seasonal housing for some of its workers; the work force population more than doubles in the summer.

Aggressive Marketing

The face of Nantucket's summer workforce gradually shifted starting in the late 1980s. No more do Ivy League college students bus tables or check in guests at the downtown inns. Middle-aged immigrants, imported from Jamaica and El Salvador, have stepped into those jobs - their complexions highlighting the disparity between the island's haves and have-nots.

"The two extremes are clashing all the time, and it makes for a world of frustration," said Alvin (Toppy) Topham, an island native and chairman of the Nantucket Planning and Economic Development Commission.

In the early 1990s, the summer season nudged into late May and early September. Now, business owners ride a full-speed tourist season from Daffodil Days in late April to well beyond Columbus Day. Winter brings another surge with "the Stroll" - a weekend festival that attracts 10,000 visitors and spreads across the month of December.

It's a bloated season - a full nine months attracting hordes of tourists - that Nantucketers not only appreciate but cultivate.

"Nantucket's extremely aggressive about marketing itself. They really understand merchandising of themselves. You don't really see that on the Vineyard," said Michelle Haynes, communications director for Cape Air, an airline providing year-round service to both Islands.

"Once you start, you can't stop," said Keith Yankow, local attorney and businessman, noting the advertising of Nantucket - a habit that's even leading them to promote a wine festival in March.

The spending power of part-time residents and one-time visitors sustains the community through the year.

Here, 35 per cent of workers make their living in retail.

A quarter work in the service industry, and 15 per cent work in the construction trades - a sector largely dependent on demand for seasonal home construction.

The retail industry grew by 52 businesses from 1992 to 1997, and each of the retail businesses boosted sales an average of 34 per cent.

"People hate to love us and love to hate us," said Ms. Bakalar, asked about the chamber-sponsored marketing of Nantucket. "They don't realize that every single person on this island is part of the tourist industry. The boom on this island has trickled down to everyone."

Transitions Over Time

Nantucket's tourist boom - bringing a 123 per cent increase in air traffic and 23 per cent increase in cars and passengers on the Steamship Authority through the 1990s - pushed vacationers into the summer rental market to compete with the housing needs of the summer work force.

"When I grew up, it used to be a point of pride that we didn't do house rentals. Then, in the 1980s, rentals were for the length of the summer. Now, it's four-day spurts," said Matt Fee, a local selectman, business owner and island native.

The pressure increased rents. Once you could find a house share for $50 a week. Now, a three-bedroom house may rent for $8,000 a month.

Slowly but surely, the American college student disappeared - driven away by soaring rental costs and the needs of employers for workers who didn't bail before the season's end.

"For the college kid, the cost of housing outpriced daddy's pocketbook," said Mr. Morris.

Bit by bit, businesses turned to Irish and British college students - hundreds of young adults here on J1 visas, student visas issued in even exchange for American students heading to their nations for summer work. Available from May through September, this pool of foreign students filled the employment gap for a time. But in the early 1990s, overcrowded housing conditions led the Irish government to warn their college kids to look for work elsewhere in America.

"There were 32 Irish kids living in one house, renting eight-hour shifts on a mattress. That's when the employers realized we were at a breaking point," said Georgia Snell, a Presbyterian minister and housing advocate.

Soon, business owners turned from this transient college population to a more mature population of immigrant laborers. Through the H2B program, non-agricultural temporary work visas, Nantucket employers secured a pool of adults who migrate from one resort destination to another in search of housekeeping, cooking and landscaping work.

"Jamaicans have now replaced in good part the reliable low-level labor that all businesses needed. The American labor force wasn't cutting it. We needed the work ethic of doing it, not complaining about it and wanting more afterward," Mr. Yankow said.

Headhunting Overseas

Headhunter Jane Zimmerman of South Dennis started pairing Jamaican housekeepers with Nantucket resorts in 1989. One-hundred and twenty H2B visas for Cape Cod and Nantucket businesses in that year have grown now into 3,000 visas for workers headed to resort destinations all over the U.S.

The growth in Ms. Zimmerman's middle-man business, Antioch Associates USA Inc., allowed her to open year-round offices in Jamaica, Bulgaria and Nepal. Antioch Associates brought 750 immigrant workers to Nantucket this year; 90 per cent are from the Caribbean.

"The H2B program has completely changed the way we staff seasonal restaurant employees. The restaurant industry on Nantucket could not survive without the quality of people coming from Jamaica. That's just reality," said Mr. Morris, who said his kitchen staff in two restaurants is composed almost entirely of Jamaican immigrants.

Nantucket's case for extra labor - a case which must be proven to the Department of Labor in order to obtain visas - is not a hard one to make. When the work force doubles in the summer, 5,000 jobs slots must be filled.

"It's easy to advertise locally and prove there's no one here to be part of your work force. Those here don't want to be housekeepers in the summer," said Mary Malavase, manager of the Beachside at Nantucket, a hotel that brings on 35 immigrant maids each season.

While these adult laborers may save employers the hassle of scrambling to fill vacancies in August and September each season, foreign labor can tack on a substantial cost to the business owners' bottom line. Finders fees, filing charges and advertising to prove a lack of American labor costs about $680 total for each job filled. An extra financial squeeze came in the last two years, when a backlog of applications at the Immigration and Naturalization Services led this federal agency to impose a $1,000 premium processing fee - the only guarantee that employers will receive their help by the start of the season.

Providing Worker Housing

Those employers not yet in the business of providing housing for staff had to step up to the plate to be a part of Ms. Zimmerman's program.

"I'm very forceful about the housing issue. I can't bring these people here without knowing they'll have a clean and reasonable place to stay," she said, noting that she insists her Jamaican workers pay no more than $135 a week for a spot in group housing or a dormitory.

With Nantucket's summer worker now decades older than the waitress and housekeeper of 20 years ago, the new seasonal worker also brings drastically different priorities.

"The Jamaicans leave families behind. They sacrifice a great deal for some financial gain. Their priorities are different because they leave so much behind," Mr. Morris said.

This new work force threatens to bring a set of repercussions town leaders didn't anticipate. The longest line in Nantucket, most veteran islanders will tell you, is at the Western Union counter in the Stop & Shop.

"All the money's going to their home countries. When the American and Irish kids were here, they'd spend it all at the bars before they left at the end of the season," said Mr. Fee.

And the new work force accelerated the need for employee housing.

"Landlording is now involved in being a business owner," said Chris Morris, manager of two restaurants - AK Diamond's and Arno's at 41 Main - and president of the restaurant association.

Nantucket voters even eased zoning regulations at the 2001 annual town meeting - enabling business owners to erect some form of employee housing in every neighborhood.

* Space for five or fewer employees, treated like any single-family residence, can be constructed in any zone by right.

* Housing for up to 18, considered neighborhood employee housing, is allowed in a number of overlay districts with a special permit.

* Dormitory housing, space for more than 18 workers, is allowable near the airport with a permit.

For the most part, this seasonal work force has yet to form a sizable yearround community.

Most head home before their temporary visas expire mid-December.

The public school system, in the last three years, got its first round of children of immigrant workers - enrolling about 50 El Salvadorian students in the English as a Second Language program. The El Salvadorians, who work in the trades, landscaping and tourism, are said to number 200 year-round.

But the seasonality of employee housing and the unattractiveness of group housing to mature adults pushes most foreign workers home at the close of the season.

"The dormitory housing is not conducive to mature adults and family living. They don't expect to stay long," said Ms. Snell.

In the meantime, business owners cross their fingers and hope that the challenges of life on Nantucket don't scare away their newest supply of seasonal workers.

"We live and breathe in a seasonal arena. It's up to the businesses to adjust or not adjust. The H2B program made it possible for us to survive. We're hoping and praying the program survives along with us," Mr. Morris said.

Coming Tuesday: The commuting worker.