April 22, 2004 – Virgin Islanders were going to work in New England this week. One worker arrived on April 16, four arrived on Wednesday and eight more did so on Thursday.
According to Maureen Oosten, president of Workers on the Move, a company based in Kennebunk, Me., as many as 300 workers from the territory could be employed in New England for the coming summer tourist season.
What is bad news for Jamaica could be good news for the Virgin Islands. Recent U.S. legislation put a cap on the number of workers New England states can receive from Jamaica through a foreign worker visa program. That put a strain on New England businesses that have relied on Jamaican help during the tourist season.
Oosten, a native of Maine who has spent time in the Virgin Islands as an educational consultant, saw an opportunity. "This is a win-win situation, the U.S. economy feeding off the U.S. economy," she said.
When the Virgin Islands tourist season slows down, the New England tourist season picks up. Oosten has been working with people in the hotel and restaurant businesses in both places.
Representing Workers on the Move in the Virgin Islands are Juanita Philips on St. Croix and Orvin Sanes on St. Thomas, Oosten said. The V.I. Labor Department has been helpful, she added, allowing Workers on the Move to use department facilities to conduct job interviews.
Some concern has been expressed in New England that Oosten has no experience as a labor broker. Her response is: "I have surrounded myself with people who do have experience in this."
The pay for employees in the available New England hospitality jobs ranges from $8 to $12.50 per hour, with the employer dictating the exact salary. Employers also determine the details of travel expenses and housing for employees coming from the territory. Oosten said housing costs range from $50 to $125 per week.
Most of the potential employees, about 250 of the 300, are from St. Croix, she said, but that might change. "As the tourist season winds down on St. Thomas, more people are wondering what they are going to do now," she said.
Labor Commissioner Cecil Benjamin also sees potential benefits in the program. "This could help a lot of people who are unemployed on the islands," he said on Thursday evening.
However, he also voiced concerns. He said he wants to be sure that the Virgin Islanders are treated as U.S. citizens and not like migrant workers.
Benjamin said it should be spelled out clearly how transportation costs will be paid and what sort of housing accommodations the workers will have. Furthermore, he wants to see a list of who will be employing the V.I. workers. He indicated that a memorandum of understanding would have to be signed before the department would continue cooperating on the project.
The idea of V.I. hospitality industry workers moving north temporarily in the summer is not new; however, the initiative has typically come from within companies in the territory that have operations elsewhere, too.
Jewelry businesses that operate shops in Alaska in the summer to take advantage of the cruise ship traffic have sent both salespeople and operational staff there. In the 1980s, sightseeing helicopter crews and equipment alternated between Alaska and the territory, too. Boston Harbor Cruises has operated the Fast Ferry service between St. Thomas and St. Croix for the last three winter seasons, while employing some V.I. personnel in Boston in the summer.
The Cape Cod Times, in a story published online on Wednesday, reported that four workers were arriving from the Virgin Islands that night and were to begin work on Thursday as housecleaners at the Chatham Highlander Motel in Chatham, Cape Cod, in Massachusetts.
According to the newspaper article, Lori O'Connell, Highlander co-owner, is paying the Virgin Islanders $9.75 per hour plus tips. She is covering airfare to Boston but expects workers to reimburse her over the season. She also is offering housing in a three-bedroom apartment for $50 a week for each worker.
The newspaper quoted O'Connell as saying she interviewed 30 Cape Cod applicants in an attempt to fill the housekeeping jobs, but she found most did not have the appropriate skills or attitude.
The newspaper also quoted a Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce official who said the chamber might hold a job fair in the Virgin Islands to recruit workers for season jobs next year.
Both Oosten and Benjamin said the jobs in New England could have benefits beyond the immediate economic advantages. They said the workers might find the seasonal jobs helpful in developing their careers.
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