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Meet Hilton Head's 5-hour commuters

Brittany Lee of Gifford in Hampton County waits to catch the bus home at the Palmetto Breeze transfer station in Bluffton on Monday, July 25, 2016. She works part-time at the Old Navy clothing store in Bluffton.
Brittany Lee of Gifford in Hampton County waits to catch the bus home at the Palmetto Breeze transfer station in Bluffton on Monday, July 25, 2016. She works part-time at the Old Navy clothing store in Bluffton. dlauderdale@islandpacket.com

Each day, hundreds of workers board public buses and ride for hours to hospitality jobs on Hilton Head Island.

Local employers have depended on bused workers for years. And the workers — from some of the state’s poorest counties where jobs are virtually non-existent — make the trip though the commutes eat up what little free time they have.

During the week of July 24, three reporters rode the buses to and from Allendale — 2½ hours each way — to chronicle riders’ stories.

 

4:30 a.m. Monday

Jessie Roberts is one of the first people at the bus stop on this warm morning.

He wants to make sure he gets a seat for the 2 ½-hour ride from Allendale to his job on the south end of Hilton Head.

It’s a smart move. Not everyone will get a seat this morning — left to stand in the aisle for the long ride to work.

The number of riders grows in the dark, their faces lit by a nearby streetlight. They have a view of the IGA across the highway, the only grocery store in town. But nobody is stirring over there yet. Nobody is stirring anywhere. It’s just them.

As Roberts, 52, waits, he and a friend do some math in their heads.

It costs $6.50 a day to get to work and back aboard the Palmetto Breeze bus, Route 311. That’s $3.25 each way.

“That’s almost $2,000 a year,” Roberts says, shaking his head.

It’s all out-of-pocket for Roberts and some 50 other Allendale residents who ride about five hours each day to work jobs on Hilton Head and nearby communities.

They clean hotel rooms and condos, cook in restaurants, landscape grounds and do dozens of other jobs that keep Hilton Head’s tourism economy humming.

Bleary eyed and sleepy, they are part of the island’s history, too. Since the 1970s, Hilton Head has imported hospitality workers from neighboring rural counties where jobs are scarce.

It’s an odd arrangement — the busing in of workers, nearly all of whom are African-American, to serve the island’s visitors. Some critics have called it exploitive.

But the workers don’t feel that way.

Roberts’ children are grown and his house in Allendale is paid for. Cooking at Hilton Head’s Zaxby’s restaurant — almost 100 miles away from his home — pays enough to support him and his wife.

The bus won’t bring him back home to Allendale until 7:30 p.m. — leaving him little time to do anything but sleep and prepare to do it again the next day.

He’s OK with that. It’s his choice. And the pay is better than what he’d make in his hometown.

“That’s how it is,” he says.

4:45 a.m. Tuesday

Ametria Washington waits at the stop, too, squinting against a car’s headlights as she strokes the three $1 bills she’s holding.

To her right, a group of women complain about folks who cut in line to secure a seat.

But Washington, a housekeeper at the Holiday Inn, doesn’t mind standing.

“Just as long as I get on,” she says. Her blue scrubs match the reusable grocery bag she’s holding — “little snacks and stuff.”

Workers on Palmetto Breeze pay different amounts, depending on how far they ride.

The majority of Hilton Head employers, who get their workers delivered to their doorsteps, pay nothing — apart from the indirect support they give the bus system through local, state and federal taxes.

Just before 5:00 a.m., the lights of the bus cut through the darkness, illuminating the huddle of riders.

They surge toward its doors, and a man and woman argue as they board. The line, if there ever was one, breaks down.

Washington, already on the bus, smiles through the condensation on the window. Today, she has a seat.

Four passengers aren’t so lucky.

5:05 a.m. Sunday

Most passengers cover themselves with blankets to offset the bus’ air conditioner.

Shay Calloway, 22, shivers and pulls the blue fleece blanket she brought from home up to her chin. Near her, others pull on jackets, even knit caps.

This is Calloway’s first week commuting on the bus after she started a job as a cashier and cook at a Hilton Head restaurant.

The job, she hopes, will help pay for community college at Denmark Technical College in Allendale, where she is studying early childhood education.

She’s happy for the work, but it’s going to be a long day; she is not yet accustomed to the five-hour commute.

She lays her head on the pillow she brought from home and puts on headphones, blocking out the snores from three rows back.

The morning bus has an unofficial rule that Calloway has already learned. Quiet is expected so riders can sleep before work. Those who choose to talk, must speak in hushed tones.

The lights cut out and soon Calloway, too, is asleep.

5:10 a.m. Monday

Riding the bus to Hilton Head beats the alternative of trying to find work in Allendale.

“There’s nothing here,” say Gardner Doe of the opportunities in his hometown, one of South Carolina’s poorest. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

The town’s few jobs pay as little as $6.50 an hour compared to the $8 to $14 most bused workers make on the island.

The island offers a better variety, too.

“I’ve done landscaping, car washing,” Doe says of his 12 years commuting to Hilton Head. A young-looking 38 in a Carolina Gamecocks shirt, Doe now works in housekeeping at the island’s Hampton Inn.

But you have to find the right job with insurance coverage and full-time hours, he warns.

On this day, the buzz on the bus is about the news of a large number of new hospitality jobs at Palmetto Bluff in Bluffton. It’s good pay, they’ve heard, and Palmetto Bluff is offering a van that will pick up workers directly from the Palmetto Breeze bus transfer station in Bluffton.

It’s tempting. It’s a shorter bus ride. There’s talk, too, that the jobs may offer better benefits than many of the Hilton Head jobs.

But Doe isn’t convinced. You’ve got to find the right fit if you’re going to put this much effort into going to work, he says. To his way of thinking, it makes more sense to hang on tight when you get something good.

6:05 a.m. Tuesday

One hour into the bus trip and the dusty orange of sunrise appears over the marsh.

The dim light reveals Elisha Dunbar’s red earrings that match her hotel uniform.

She reaches inside the black backpack that rests on her lap and pulls open a plastic package. A fruity smell perfumes the air as she pops a B-12 gummy into her mouth.

“Sometimes when I’m working, in the sun, I feel like all my energy is gone,” says Dunbar, who has worked at various Marriott properties on Hilton Head Island for 18 years, and taken the Allendale bus for 17 of those.

She and some other housekeepers tried carpooling for a while, but the bus is cheaper. More reliable, too.

If a bus breaks down, another comes to take its place.

Marriott is good to work for, she says — it pays for fresh uniforms and shoes every six months.

“You see, even if I didn’t ride the bus, (Allendale) people drive to Orangeburg, even Columbia,” she says, explaining the dearth of work in Allendale.

Around her, people sleep, their limbs and heads in various states of rest. Behind her, a man snores.

6:45 a.m. Sunday

Nearly two hours into the ride the bus takes a few quick turns. The passengers stir as the 40-foot coach rolls onto a bumpy road and stops on a large blacktop already filled with people in uniforms for Hilton Head resorts, restaurants and retail stores.

Ravon Robinson and the other Allendale riders hop off at the Bluffton annex— the main hub where all seven Palmetto Breeze commuter lines converge. From here, bus riders from Allendale, Hampton, Colleton, Jasper and Beaufort counties transfer to buses that take them to their jobs on the island.

The riders wait in groups, chatting. When they spot their line, they rush to meet it, hoping to nab a seat.

Robinson, 21, makes his way to the bus marked 933 that will head to Hilton Head’s south end.

But his mind seems still back in Allendale — a mobile home he shares with his girlfriend and their 2-month-old daughter. He woke up there at 3:45 a.m. this morning and held his tiny daughter in his arms. He gave her a bottle to quiet her and put her in bed with her mother before changing into his McDonald’s uniform and walking to the bus stop.

He’s gotten even less sleep than usual lately because of the baby.

“I don’t even know I get up some mornings,” he says, sitting on his second bus of the day.

Soon, the bus fills with gospel music playing over the sound system. It’s not as good as being at church on this Sunday morning, but it at least gives riders a taste of what they’re missing back home.

A young woman sitting behind Robinson gazes out the window and sings along to the lyrics she clearly knows well: “It is His will that every need be supplied,” she sings as the bus passes a Hilton Head resort. “You are important to me. I need you to survive.”

7:35 a.m. Sunday

The limited bus routes often don’t match up with workers’ schedules.

A woman named Lucci gets off her bus on the island’s south end and takes a seat at a bus shelter. She’ll have to wait here for 3½ hours until her shift begins at a nearby restaurant.

“At least there’s no rats out today,” she says. “They come around here the size of little baby puppies. I swear to God.”

4:05 p.m. Monday

It’s late afternoon, and the process starts over, only in reverse, as people start gathering after their shifts end.

Brittany Lee’s shift at the Old Navy clothing store ended at 12:45 p.m. But she won’t board a bus until 5:30 p.m. to get back home to Gifford, a small town above Estill in Hampton County.

She’s working part-time but wants to go full time soon. That might help pay for classes at Denmark Technical College, where she wants to study to become a licensed practical nurse.

“My goal is to go to school,” she says as a breeze finally nudges the stifling heat.

After graduating from Estill High School she thought she’d work a while to save money before going to school.

“That was a big mistake,” she says.

4:40 pm Sunday

Tyrell Black of Beaufort bounds toward a bench at the Bluffton annex to wait for the bus to take him home, a noticeable skip in his step. Perched on his head are two baseball caps: one he wears to his job at Gumtree Landscaping on Hilton Head; the other is brand new with the McDonald’s logo on front.

“I got a job!” he yells to childhood friend Louis Stapaes across the station’s parking lot.

“My mom is going to be happy,” says Black with a laugh, showing his new apron to his friend.

5:10 p.m. Sunday

Nearby, Joanne Mew is waiting patiently. A worker in the laundry department of the Sonesta Resort, she’s been riding the bus from her home in Fairfax for 25 years — longer than many of the other riders have been alive.

Kaietta Hodge, 26, sits next to her. The younger woman hands Mew a cold bottle of water she bought from the vending machine to cope with the 94-degree heat.

“Here you go, Miss Joanne,” she says, taking a dollar from Mew.

The two have known each other since Hodge was a little girl. The wait for the Hampton County Route 310 bus gives the two time to catch up.

Hodge is a mother herself. She leaves her two sons with her mother so she can work in the kitchen at Hilton Head Hospital.

“I don’t have a quarter for you,” Mew says of the $1.25 bottle of water.

“Get out of here! I don’t want your quarter, Miss Joanne!” Hodge says.

5:40 p.m. Sunday

The Allendale bus rolls in.

Finally.

“Welcome to the bus, honey!” calls Roosevelt Williams, 31, as the aisle begins to fill with passengers.

Williams, a Publix employee who has been riding the bus for exactly 10 years and 3 months, is full of stories of bus breakdowns and standing on the trip from Allendale.

Tonight though, everyone gets a seat home.

“That’s good because that’s a lot of standing, honey, and I don’t have my Dr. Scholl’s on for that!” he says to laughs of agreement through the back of the bus.

With his bleach blond hair and bedazzled necklace, he settles into his seat for the ride home as if it were a throne.

But most of the riders are more quiet.

6 p.m. Monday

Cora Creech of Allendale pulls a little blanket over her arms and quietly tells a story of her family that defies the norm for Allendale County. Her two daughters are in graduate school. One also is working at the Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Fort Gordon, Ga., and wants to become a doctor. And her youngest is working on a college degree online.

They make Creech proud. She has worked in housekeeping at Disney’s Hilton Head Resort for the past six years, full-time with good benefits and contributions to her 401(k) plan.

“This is what we expected of them,” she says. “They work hard.”

7:26 p.m. Tuesday

It’s 14½ hours since the Allendale workers boarded the morning bus to go to work. They’re finally getting home.

Tyshundra Drayton climbs down and crosses Marion Street toward a brick building on the corner.

The building’s windows are broken and covered by bars. Near one of the windows, a “NO LOITERING” sign makes its wishes known.

She takes a seat on the building’s stairs, her feet dangling over the grass strewn with litter — beer bottles, a Pringles can.

A bakery worker at the Hilton Head Kroger, Drayton has been up since 4 a.m.

Now, she waits for her mother to pull up in her white station wagon and drive her home.

They’ll be just a few hours between Drayton finally reaching home and heading back to the Allendale bus stop.

“When I get home, all I do is eat, wash, sleep.”

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