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September 02, 2007


Shane Milburn

Mostly just questions here as I'm completely guessing, but many of these touristy type places can't get enough locals for seasonal work and actively recruit immigrant labor. I'm unfamiliar with the geography, but is Mackinac island "a long way from anywhere" such that the combination of working a long way from home for a sub-minimum wage once room/board is accounted for not economically justifiable in many cases?


Working on Mackinac Island would not support a family. It's very isolated, most of your pay would go towards housing or ferry costs, and the work season is only three months (summers are short in Northern Michigan). How many Jamaicans work on the Island from September to May?


I live and work on Mackinac Island, I moved here year round twelve years ago. I don't own a business here. I can tell you without hesitation that the Jamaicans are doing jobs Americans don't want to do. I have watched job after job rejected (people quitting within days) by Americans and eventually being filled by Jamaicans. It is astounding how few people under thirty are willing to work cleaning rooms, doing laundry, washing dishes and such. Believe me, when i moved here I thought "American jobs for Americans". I have seen the reality. You are right, the unemployment rate here in Michigan is very high. The Island season is six months, not three. Getting people to relocate for six months is hard enough. Getting them to stay in housing facilities that involve sharing rooms and so on is even harder. Space is limited here, and expensive.


I live and work on Mackinac Island, I moved here year round twelve years ago. I don't own a business here. I can tell you without hesitation that the Jamaicans are doing jobs Americans don't want to do. I have watched job after job rejected (people quitting within days) by Americans and eventually being filled by Jamaicans. It is astounding how few people under thirty are willing to work cleaning rooms, doing laundry, washing dishes and such. Believe me, when i moved here I thought "American jobs for Americans". I have seen the reality. You are right, the unemployment rate here in Michigan is very high. The Island season is six months, not three. Getting people to relocate for six months is hard enough. Getting them to stay in housing facilities that involve sharing rooms and so on is even harder. Space is limited here, and expensive.

Seen this for 14 years!

At the beginning of the tourist season (April) anyone can apply for these positions listed on our Michigan Works system and in local newspapers. You send in an application and resume but you will soon discover these job openings are already filled by J1 employees already on Mac. Isl. or are on their way! The employers 1st post the openings in the winter in Detroit newspapers as they are required to do for a certain amount of time. Then are allowed to go ahead and hire the J1 employees. They are actually hired six months in advance as to get the visa's in time- that's how long it takes * funny huh?* In 2006' it cost an employer $ 1,600.00 per J1 employee to get to Mac. Isl. to begin work. J1 employees usually work 6-7 days a wk. from May 1st-Oct. 31st (our tourist season). They get lower wages but are tipped out by the servers 1% of their daily sales ($ 1,000.00 in sales = $10.00 per day X 7 servers on a shift) $70.00 to split between the 4 FOH/ *front of the house* J1 employees: cashier, food expeditor, hostess, busser for that day. Our money is worth around 60% of their money- that's alot of cash to make everyday. Did I mention the J1 employee DOES NOT claim this extra money and pay taxes on it? This is a way for the employer to benefit the J1 employee without having to pay it themselves. They work overtime hours but due to contracts are only paid regular rate. J1 employees get housing and one meal a day as part of the contracts. This is pretty much how this works in this area. The cashier where I worked this season said "after seven years of working here I make $ 6.85 hr.* every paycheck they take out $ 169.00 to put in my account in Jamaica as my country wants to make sure I spend money there, I live on my tips from the servers but send most of the money home. At the end of the season I've usually saved around $4,000.00 in the bank here!" I'm not sure if that's our money amount or there's over there?"
I can debate the theroy that employers can't find Americans to wash dishes, clean hotel rooms, do laundry by simply saying- "How do other Hotels, Motels and Restaurants in Michigan function November thru April without J1's?" If a survey was done you'd find that the majority of seasonal employees in this area are not from Michigan or this country!


Northern Businesses scrambling for workers
A serious labor shortage, caused by a nationwide increase in demand for seasonal foreign workers, may hurt northern Michigan's economy this same.

Many of the estimated 1,500 to 1,800 foreign workers who usually come to northern Michigan in April and May to work in the area's restaurants, hotels and stores will not arrive this year, due to a cap on H-2B visas that limits the number of seasonal workers who can work in this country to 66,000.

Visas are issued each fiscal year, beginning October 1, but businesses cannot begin applying for these visas until 120 days prior to the date they need the workers.

Most northern Michigan employers cannot apply until mid-January because they don't open before mid-April or May. The cap for 2004-2005 was reached on January 3, 2005—two months earlier than in 2004—stranding many northern Michigan businesses without the seasonal workers they depend on to keep their operations running smoothly.

The demand for H-2B workers has increased dramatically since the cap was set in 1990, as more industries, such as logging and construction, find value in hiring them. Areas that hire in the winter—such as southern states and winter ski resorts—snap up more visas each year, but this is the first year that businesses that cannot use the workers before late spring, such as summer resorts, have been shut out completely.

Mackinaw City businesses applied for 340 visas and received 40. St. Ignace obtained none, and only four businesses on Mackinac Island received any.

The Grand Hotel's solution was to open two months earlier than usual, on March 1, which allowed the landmark resort to apply earlier for the coveted visas it needs for its 300 foreign workers each summer.

Employers who operate year-round—such as Ron Dufina, who owns several hotels, restaurants and retail stores on Mackinac Island—also obtained visas.

"At peak season I hire about 160 employees, and we used 38 H-2B visa workers last year," said Dufina. "This year we applied for 54. We will bring them all in and probably get transfers for some of them to businesses that have been okayed by the labor board but just weren't early enough to get the workers."

Although the shortage impacts hotels and restaurants most directly, some employers such as Dufina use them in retail stores as well. Moreover, trouble in the tourism industry will affect the entire northern Michigan economy, since tourism is integral to the region's economy.

"It will have a serious impact on the whole region," said Dufina. ";It has really raised the cost of doing business up here, and that will ripple through our regional economy."

Area leaders in the tourism and travel industry, however, believe that the average tourist visiting the area will not notice the shortage.

"Whatever has to be done will be done to ensure that visitors receive a high standard of service and feel no negative impact," assured Bob Benser, president of the tourism bureaus of both Mackinac Island and Gaylord.

Behind the scenes, the community has come together to explore and implement creative solutions to the problem.

In January, Congressman Bart Stupak (D-Menominee) conducted a hearing in Petoskey on the issue. It drew some 60 northern Michigan employers, ranging from Boyne USA Resorts and Grand Hotel to smaller businesses in Petoskey, Charlevoix, Mackinaw City, Mackinac Island and Gaylord.

Stupak is a primary cosponsor of a bill that would address the problem, and a group of 10 area business owners went to Washington in early March to lobby for the legislation. The legislation is now in the House Judiciary Committee, so it will offer no relief for this year.

Other solutions include sharing the available workers and recruiting current H-2B visa workers from areas like Colorado's ski resorts, extending their current visas. College students and J-1 visa workers (foreign college students who come to work and usually travel) will be aggressively recruited as well, but they usually have to return to school in August, long before the season's end in October.

Even the best solutions, however, will be expensive. There will be added costs from traveling to find new workers, training them, and offering higher wages to an entire staff in order to entice more local workers.

A labor shortage may seem hard to reconcile with Michigan's unemployment rate of above 7 percent. But the niche filled by these workers, primarily Jamaicans, is very specific and difficult to fill with other possible sources of workers. The jobs in question—mostly housekeepers, dishwashers and cooks—can be difficult to fill even when offering good pay, especially when they can only be offered from May until October.

It's a common misconception that these workers are taking away jobs from Americans, employers say. To obtain these workers, each business must go through a rigorous application process that includes demonstrating that it has sought to fill the jobs with American workers.

In addition, these workers' wages are set by the U.S. Department of Labor and based on the average regional wage for the position, so it's not a matter of importing "cheap labor."

"It's really a complex situation," said Dawn Johnson, executive director of the Mackinaw City Chamber of Commerce and owner of the city's Econolodge. "These seasonal jobs are just not well matched to Michigan's large unemployed population.

"People aren't going to come up here for a seasonal job—it's too expensive to have two part-time homes, and you may have kids to consider. It's just not feasible for most people."

Detroit immigration lawyer Robert Birach says his company ran 145 ads in The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press to fill 331 positions.

"We had 14 responses. One woman applied for five jobs, and a man applied for three jobs, said Birach"

In contrast, the Jamaican workers who have been coming for years for these jobs have filled the labor niche well.

"They're reliable and professional, they work hard and they wear a smile while doing it," said Brian Bailey, general manager of the Chippewa and Lilac Tree hotels on Mackinac Island. "Most of my H-2B workers have been with our company for three to 10 years."

The problem will only get worse, most labor analysts believe, which may explain the bipartisan support in both houses of Congress for a remedy. More than 50 legislators have cosponsored the legislation (House Bill 793 and Senate Bill 352), dubbed the "Save Our Small and Seasonal Businesses Act."

Legislative solution
Instead of raising the cap, which Congressman Stupak believes is unlikely in the current anti-immigration climate, the proposed legislation would distribute the workers more fairly across the country by making half the visas available on October 1 and the other half available on April 1.

Stupak said the legislation was "gathering steam" in early March, but it remains in the Judiciary Committee, so a provision to exempt any workers who participated in the H-2B program one of the last three years from counting against the 66,000 cap will not help this year.

The bill also includes fraud prevention and detection provisions that create sanctions for misrepresenting information in the application process. The strictest consequences are reserved for those who do not properly seek out U.S. workers to fill the jobs.

A big hurdle in passing such legislation is sensitivity on the issue of immigration, especially since it now falls under the Department of Homeland Security since the restructuring of immigration services after 9/11.

"Immigration is not a popular word in Washington. There is not the political will to [raise the cap]," said Stupak.

Benser, who went to Washington to lobby for the bill, explained, "we have to emphasize that this is not primarily an immigration issue but a labor and business issue."

Stupak and others agree that the legislation may only be a short-term solution to the problem, but if it eases the problem for another few years, it may give lawmakers time to craft a better solution while keeping afloat small businesses that rely on these valuable foreign workers.

Other solutions
One solution is to share workers among businesses, but the H-2B program stipulates that workers can only be shared between H-2B-approved businesses in the same category—for example, hotels. A potential solution of a hotel sharing a worker with a restaurant, whose scheduling needs might be complementary, would not be allowed in most cases.

Another solution is to recruit H-2B workers from other areas and extend their visas.

Brian Bailey went to Colorado and found 25 workers whose visas will be extended. A second trip to a West Virginia resort yielded 10 more, so he has filled more than half of the 60 jobs he normally has for foreign workers.

"We were lucky that we got [to Colorado] early. There's only a limited number of workers, and I think just about every employer in the country was there trying to recruit them!" said Bailey.

But he'd rather be able to retain some of his most valuable and experienced employees, so he will also pay a premium to an employment company that managed to get visas before the cap was reached, to be used for specific workers. He feels it's worth paying more to have the continuity and stability of a seasoned staff.

"We certainly hope that we are not in this boat next year," added Bailey. "If we can get this legislation passed, it will give us more time to work out some better long-term solution."

Return to April Michigan Retailer Page one • MRA home

From Cadillac, Michigan

Serving Wexford, Missaukee, Osceola and eastern Lake counties

October 9, 2007


Here to stay: Migrant worker issue contains many perspectives

Sally Barber | Cadillac News
Elvia Vasquez, a native of central Mexico, manages calf feeding at Autumn Vista Dairy in McBain. Vasquez came to Michigan 10 years ago, earning citizenship status two years ago.
By Sally Barber, Cadillac News

Every year about 40,000 migrant farm workers come to Michigan to pick fruit and vegetables and to work on dairy and Christmas tree farms.

This year the numbers may increase according to Christina Loera, a member of the migrant clinic staff serving this region.

Loera is involved with the federal Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program. In February, the most recent data period, the clinic registered 420 women and children. While the clinic serves Wexford and Missaukee counties, those numbers primarily account for Oceana County, where the seasonal work is beginning, Loera said. The figure excludes men who often come without family members.

Many of the migrants registering with the clinic are in Michigan for the first time. Most are coming from Mexico, California, Wisconsin and Florida because of lack of work in those areas, Loera said.

“They are lower educated, low-income — and come up her to make a living,” she explained. “Some of the women come here to have their children and make sure they are born in the U.S.”

The immigrant story is a kaleidoscope of perspectives, but the bottom line is the human quest for personal and community economic stability.

When Autumn Vista Dairy in McBain was founded, the native language of the farm worker was Dutch. Today, more than a century later, it’s Spanish.

Third generation dairy owner/operator Gerry Gernaat employs 30 workers at peak season. Half are immigrants.

“I’m passionate about opportunities for people,” Gernaat said. “My mother came here from Holland when she was 10. It gave her an opportunity for a better life.”

Mexican immigrant Elvia Vasquez is one of many workers who have benefited from Gernaat’s drive to pay back the system that sustained his family.

After leaving her hometown San Luis Potasi, Vasquez settled in Texas. Ten years ago she came to Michigan to work on the Gernaat farm. Mother of five, she manages care for the dairy’s 200 calves, earning $11 per hour. In addition to wages, she is provided medical insurance and a house with paid utilities.

“People come here because they want to work for their families,” Vasquez said in broken English.

Herdsman Jesus Mejia, also a manager, came to the United States in 1986 and to McBain in 1997.

“Coming to the U.S., my life is 100 percent better,” Mejia said.

Gernaat has hired Hispanic immigrants for the past decade.

“We need a stable workforce and they do fill that need,” he said. “Unemployment is 5 percent. Of that, it’s very difficult to hire enough people to do the repetitious work we do on the farm.”

But an immigrant’s legal status can be an unanswered question. New hires are required to complete state and federal W-4 forms, a Department of Homeland Security I-9 form, provide a social security number and two forms of picture identification. Gernaat must assume documentation is authentic.

“It’s against the law to ask a worker if they are a citizen,” he said. “We can get in trouble if we try to determine if a Hispanic is illegal. We would be profiling.”

Gernaat said he is aware of employers in northern Michigan who are “getting away with” knowingly hiring illegals and paying wages in cash to avoid tax issues.

Unlike numerous area Christmas tree growers, Dick Duddles of Reed City will not employ immigrants. He anticipates filling his demand for seasonal workers this year from the area labor pool.

“I think it takes jobs from the local people and when migrants get their checks they send their money back wherever, and they don’t pay their fair share of taxes,” he said.

With the number of illegals undocumented the balance between give and take is hard to evaluate. Like employers, public health workers are prohibited from questioning a person’s legal status, said Dr. James Wilson, District Health Department No. 10 medical director. Anyone qualifying for service under agency guidelines cannot be denied. However, the impact of immigrants on the local public health system is limited.

“We have some in Missaukee County,” Wilson said. “If you look at the statistics, it’s a small percentage.”

Long-term, Gernaat sees the immigrant worker as a permanent part of both the labor force and society.

Your local connection

Current agriculture job openings listed by the Michigan Migrant and Seasonal Worker Program’s area offices:

Manistee office: Christmas tree work, 48 openings, $9.65 per hour, housing provided. (231) 398-3166

Fremont office: Asparagus harvesting, nursery, pruning and landscaping work, 99 openings, $6.95 to $7.25 per hour, some housing provided. (231) 924-3230

Area licensed migrant housing:

Wexford County, 2 units, capacity 15

Missaukee: 19 units, capacity 151

Osceola County: None

Source: Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth

[email protected] (231) 775-NEWS

E-mail this story to friend Submit your opinion Printer Friendly Version

Copyright © 1997-2007 Cadillac News. All Rights Reserved
130 N. Mitchell St., P.O. Box 640, Cadillac, Michigan 49601-0640
Phone: 231-775-6565 Fax: 231-775-8790
E-Mail: [email protected]

I worked there

The work and living conditions are poor. The shifts are long and hard on Mackinac Island, I've waited tables all my life. I didn't go back there to work. If you were caught eating by the owner you would be fired. I can see the health part of this but it's a long ten hour shift with no eating or being able to use the restroom. They had a night dining room Jamaican manager that had been there for years. The night bar manager was an American that was married to a Jamaician server that also worked there. American's were the minority.

Seasonal Staffing

There are several very good reasons why so many American companies hire Jamaicans, Russians, Bulgarians, etc. Foreign visitors are truly hard-working and it is easier to recruit them. Moreover, the companies are rewarded for hiring some categories of international labor by legally saving on taxes. Our company Seasonal Staffing Solutions has been providing American employers with J-1 international workers for many years. These workers are full-time foreign university students who visit the United States and work in an American company for a maximum of four months during their summer vacation. According to our experience of dealing with many hotels, restaurants and moving companies, there are three major benefits of hiring internationals:

• Foreign visitors tend to be really hard-working people. Not only do they accept any entry-level jobs, like washing the dishes or cleaning the rooms, but they gladly perform for as many hours as needed. This is the only chance for them to earn and save some money, so they work hard without asking for days-off or vacations. Overtime is always appreciated.

• The employers save on taxes, as international students are not subject to Medicare, Social Security or Federal Unemployment taxes. This constitutes more than seven percent savings on the payroll.

• There is no cost in arranging for J-1 visitors. The employers don’t have to advertise or to pay placement agencies.

seasonal jobs

michigan will lose a lot more jobs if the car makers go under. I hope the economy will come back.

seasonal jobs online

Upset Resident

I am a resident of Cheboygan county and have been for a very long time. I am sick and tired of the statements from the business owners and everyone else in Mackinaw City/Mackinaw Island stating they cannot get American's to work the jobs they give to Jamican's. What a bunch of hog wash! It's almost May, where are the ads that any business owners are hiring in Mackinaw? Not in the Cheboygan Tribune, not in the Mackinaw City newspaper, not in the Petoskey News Review, not in the Gaylord Herald Times! I tell you, my children have applied year after year in Mackinaw City and Mackinaw Island. Neither have recieved a phone call for an interview. They are both 17 & 18 now, and once again they have applied in Mackinaw City/Mackinaw Island. NO PHONE CALLS THIS YEAR EITHER!!! Our govenor of Michigan goes to Mackinaw Island almost every weekend to the governor's mansion each and every summer. She see's the amount of Jamican's we hire, she reads our newspapers, and see's the non-exsistant help wanted ads, she see the non-exsistant help wanted signs, hanging in the business owners windows!!! It's a shame, really is. I suspect due to the fact they advertise in the Detroit papers that it really isn't worth it for anyone to make that drive! Get real people, do something about this problem. I just heard on the radio this morning that Mackinaw county in the UP has an unemployment rate of 28%. Cheboygan, Emmet, and Otsego counties don't fall far behind!
Kudo's to the employers who do not bring in bus loads of Jamican's each summer, such as Arnold Line Ferry and Star Line Ferries.
Shame on Ludlow's (Big Boy) for bringing in Jamican's to work not only in Mackinaw, but in Cheboygan and Gaylord to work!


i work for northpointe inn in mackinac city for 3 yrs after the 3rd yr he let us go for them expain this to me that after 3 yrs never misses a day of work always doing what was ask of us . each and every yr this get worse all because we will not work for 3.00 here so many say we will not work kinda hard when there is nothing for us ajamican come here because these companies allow them this has nothing to do with us not working or we wont like others i am tired of hearing how we wont work .

Mike Heythaler

The notion that there is a shortage of willing, capable, local labor is a complete fabrication. Take the time to ask residents of Cheboygan, St. Ignace and the surrounding area. The fact of the matter is nothing more than greed. The foreign labor is brought in to get around paying even minimum wage and overtime. You cant tell me it is easier to bring labor from thousands of miles away and house them, get visas, etc.. than it is to hire local labor. Just like anything else, this is a bottom line issue - MONEY. What do our politicians have to say, ask them, you will be surprised. Somebody somewhere is getting kickbacks you bet your ass. Its time we as local citizens stand up for our interests and our welfare.

WISP Billing Software

I also wonder why are there Jamaicans there working instead of people who are from the area.

brain tumor

It is totally unfair to local residents there that Jamaicans work on their neighborhood while they who are residents there are jobless.


I have worked on mackinac for three seasons. I want to start with the fact that I know they place adds for workers in the local papers and if you live in the are most of the larger places will pay for a boat pass so you can get onto the island everyday. Secondly, I have also seen americans quit after very short periods of time. It isn't always the work (though that is common) they just don't like being stuck on the island. The pay for most positions is fair and the cost of housing isn't that far beyond the cost off island. The difference here is that you may end up sharing your room. Personally I have made enough money on the island that I don't need to work in the winter to survive. That's just me, but If I can live year round on what I make that says something. The island is the best place I have found also to save money. This is mainly due to the fact you don't have to pay for gas. No cars saves a lot of money. That is also a plus since it forces you to exorcise.


I just got hired by the Grand Hotel through monster They have contacted me, I didnt call them, or apply through them. It seems they are looking for local workers to me, at least the Grand Hotel. I am a resident of Cheboygan County and have worked in Mackinaw city for 2 years now, and no, Not for the Leggeos. Which in fact they own like 51% of the entire city of Mackinaw.. They hire a majority of the forign workers and it is almost impossible to get hired before forigners with them.. They dont like locals, and to be honest I dont blame them. Most of Cheboygan is full of druggies and theives.

This will be my first summer on the island, and I hope its a successful one, I love cars dont get me wrong but I love to excersise alot, and ride horses. Theres going to be plenty of that too.. Well see how this summer fans out but in the end I hope to save alot of money and get my life straight again!

Kevin Koehler

I live a few hours away from Mackinac Island (northern Wisconsin). It is not a question about if people are too picky about the work. But you are talking about the tourist season. During that time, millions of people visit all the northern tourist sites that are cooler than the hot summer of the southern states. College students normally take these jobs during the summer in the northern area. Wisconsin may not seem like a tourist state, but with the worlds largest waterpark, the dells, and another hundred areas that people love to see, the supply of workers are divided up. The Wisconsin Dells hires international students to help fill the vacancies, as well as allows the students to see a small part of the U.S. in exchange. (My cousin from Russia took advantage of this one year). The demand of workers may be high, but the businesses still need to make a profit, so the amount to be paid still is low.

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