Hilton Head Island’s low-wage service workers, the ones profiled over the past month in The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette, deserve the praise they have received from readers.
They are hard workers.
They are doing what it takes to provide for their families.
And their work ethic is admirable.
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But to praise these men and women for making five-hour commutes to go to part-time, inconsistent, minimal-wage work — as if this is normal — is to praise a broken, two-faced system that continues to exist despite our modern enlightenment.
Resorts, restaurants and retailers on Hilton Head say they are struggling to find employees, the ones who will clean rooms, cook and serve food, and stand behind the cash register.
And who will do so reliably.
They want what all employers want: Employees who will show up for their shifts on time — or at all, for that matter.
They want employees who can follow directions well, people who will think on their feet, go out of their way to satisfy customers and who won’t make more work for management.
They want employees whose smiles and attitudes will convey to tourists that “This is a Hilton Head Island you love and must return to.”
These employers want employees who will do right by them.
But, simply put, they have not done right by employees.
Are these employers the spawn of stereotypical evil corporate leaders who lost their collective humanity in the boardroom? Do these companies coordinate and meet in secret to brainstorm ways to exploit low-wage workers? Are they racist and classist?
But they certainly have had no problem treating low-wage employees as if they’re disposable by offering, in many cases, stagnant pay, patchy part-time shifts, few benefits, limited training, little opportunity for advancement and a message that this is how it is for people in these roles.
All in an unaffordable place that requires, in many cases, hours-long commutes using an inadequate public bus service that these major employers — who say they need these workers — can’t be bothered to directly pay into.
Now, here we are, a resort island that cannot work without the working class yet continues to squeeze them out while saying this.
Just over a year ago, I covered a retail job fair at the Technical College of the Lowcountry where I talked to job-seekers and to store managers from Tanger Outlets.
The desperation was interesting.
It wasn’t just coming from those who needed work, the ones I would expect to be selling it by outlining what they would bring to the table if hired.
The retailers had to hustle too, except, according to the job-seekers I talked to, the hustle did not come with the kinds of incentives one would expect from entities that need something from you.
This, instead, seemed to be the message: We want you, but only for a few hours here and there — we’ll let you know the week before and, no, we’re not coordinating with your other jobs. Oh, and even though we know you can’t possibly afford a car on what you’d make here, you better not ever have transportation problems.
I heard it over and over again from the job-seekers: I wasn’t getting enough hours. I got taken off the schedule for a week because I had no ride one day. I have a kid and can’t take the Palmetto Breeze for a five-hour commute just to be left on the island for 10 hours so I can work a six-hour shift at a seasonal job. I need three part-time jobs to make 40 hours, and because I’m always going to work when the one that pays me the most puts me on the schedule, even last-minute, I sometimes have to call out for the other two, so I end up getting fired all the time.
Low-wage workers are critical to the operation of Hilton Head. And critical components — to any operation — should be appreciated and protected.
They should be valued.
Employees are telling the island’s employers why the system isn’t working in places, “We want to work. But we need more and reliable hours, and we need a way to get to you.”
When The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette ran the story about the low-wage workers, most of whom are black, who cram themselves onto standing-room-only Palmetto Breeze buses each morning for 2 ½ hour commutes to the island, many readers reacted with standing ovations.
Here are some of the comments:
▪ These fine folks are living the American dream.
▪ I commend them for what they do.
▪ They show everyone that hard work is something to be proud of.
▪ Good for them! They have the morals, character, and work ethic to get out and earn a living, regardless of the toll that it takes, rather than living off the government.
Readers made these comments, presumably, because the people on those buses said it’s OK, we’re glad to have jobs. These buses are bringing us to opportunities we do not have 100 miles away, where we live. We’re doing what we’ve always done.
But what kind of way is this to treat those critical to the bigger picture? To put them on a bus, make some of them stand in the aisle for two hours, keep them down here until we say so and then congratulate them as if their lives are supposed to be that way?
Employers and employees will always need each other. But like any good relationship, there must be a balance of give and take.
Hilton Head’s workforce is way off-balance, this is clear, and it is time for employers to make it right.
Major employers and the Town of Hilton Head Island need to start by focusing on improving the bus service. And employers need to take a good, hard look at how to better match their actions with their expectations.
So, by all means, cheer loudly for Hilton Head’s service workers, but don’t allow your applause to drown out the truth.