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8 months in America — meet a seasonal Hilton Head worker

Helron Harvey’s Marriott bicycle.
Helron Harvey’s Marriott bicycle.

A blue barrel sits empty in Helron Harvey’s Bluffton apartment.

It’s big — taller than the couch next to it — and made of sturdy plastic that’s well-suited to the thousand-mile journey it will eventually take from South Carolina to Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Helron Harvey will make the same trip in October, returning to his home after working his first summer season on Hilton Head Island. By then, the 27-year-old promises that the barrel will be full of clothes, gifts and food.

“Tin food, rice, flour, sugar, basic stuff,” Helron said earlier this month. “I grew up in a poor community. I want to give back to my family, friends, their family and friends.”

Helron is one of 334 foreign workers employed on the island this summer through the United States’ H-2B Temporary Non-Agricultural Workers program, which allows employers to fill jobs with international workers if they are struggling to hire locally. The group of experienced hospitality workers — all of them from Jamaica — are an important part of Hilton Head’s workforce, doing jobs that serve tourists and keeping the island’s economy humming.

Since 1987, tourism towns like Hilton Head have depended on them to do jobs ranging from cleaning rooms to cooking to landscaping. And several local employers say they’d like to recruit more H-2B workers to the island in coming years.

As a pool and grounds attendant at Marriott's Harbour Point and Sunset Pointe timeshare resorts at Shelter Cove, Helron is responsible for life guarding, maintaining the pools and cleaning and fixing bikes for guests. He’s one of 57 H-2B workers Marriott Vacation Club is employing on the island this year.

Though he worked for nearly a decade in housekeeping at Sandals resort in Jamaica, Helron’s experience this summer has been drastically different. He’s spending months away from his family and living with four other men he’d never met before coming to America.

It’s worth it. He’s earning far more money than ever before.

Most days, it’s an adventure, marked by new sights and experiences, and wages that can pay for new possibilities.

When he feels particularly far from home, Helron remembers the words his program coordinator said when he was first offered the job.

“It’s going to be different,” the man had said. “You’re going to face challenges. But you were selected for a reason, so just be prepared and do your best.”

It wasn’t luck that set him on this path.

“I felt blessed,” he said.

Ups and downs

The H-2B program has drawn criticism in South Carolina.

In 2003, an employee sued the now-closed Daufuskie Island Resort in federal court, alleging he was fired without cause and discriminated against while he was in the program. The man, Wade Smith, stayed in Bluffton and now owns Central Beauty Supplies in Sheridan Park; he eventually settled with the resort for $25,000.

And in June, Jamaican H-2B workers won a $2.5 million settlement from Kiawah Island Golf Resort, a sister property of Sea Pines Resort, over claims that the company failed to properly pay them.

But H2-B employees working on Hilton Head this summer say they have no complaints.

In interviews with dozens of the workers, all said their pay is good, their accommodations are comfortable and their employers are welcoming, encouraging and responsive to concerns. Sea Pines employed the most, with 100 workers, followed by Omni Oceanfront Resort, Marriott Vacation Club, Sonesta Resort, Westin and Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort.

Local resorts have good reason to follow the rules, which include paying workers’ airfare from their home countries and providing suitable housing.

Unlike the J-1 Visa Exchange Visitor Program, H-2B workers can return to their U.S. jobs year after year, meaning resorts can build a stable of hard-working, experienced employees to meet seasonal demand. Hotel managers and town officials both say it’s a critical program on Hilton Head, and its use has nearly tripled since 2012, when it bottomed out at just 122 workers.

Still, there are far fewer H-2B workers on the island than before the Great Recession. In 2008, seven resorts, two landscaping companies and Shore Beach Services employed a total of 782 H-2B workers on Hilton Head.

The biggest challenge, resorts say, is finding places to house seasonal employees. Some, like Helron, are placed in Bluffton apartment complexes.

Others have lived on resort properties or in vacant hotel rooms.

For the first time this year, about 150 people are living in an entirely H-2B community of one-story, connected apartments outside Palmetto Dunes. The owners of the neighborhood, Chimney Cove, evicted about 40 local Hispanic families in spring 2016 to carry out major renovations and house the H-2B employees.

International employees at Chimney Cove say the two-bedroom apartments cost $1,600 per month, split between four people.

‘I have a heart’

Last year, Helron stood in front of a mirror, held his own gaze, straightened his back and smiled.

He hadn’t interviewed for a job since he was 18 years old and wanted to look professional, authoritative and courteous. He groomed his hair, picked out fashionable slacks and a fitted button-up shirt, and thought hard about his answers.

“I like to look official, like I’m the boss,” Helron said. “When I’m making big steps, I always think deep.”

His preparation paid off. Soon, he was accepting the job, filling out paperwork for his visa and emptying his room in the apartment he shared with his cousin. And though Helron loves clothes, he gave away most of his to friends, coworkers and neighbors in need.

“I have a heart,” he said. “I know what it’s like to be less fortunate.”

Packing in one big suitcase was easy after the purge. Harvey had just one special item from home to fit in — a black, knit cap that his grandfather wore to church each Sunday before his death eight years ago.

He also left room for the things he planned to buy in America.

Under the H-2B program, foreign workers stand to earn thousands of dollars more in the United States than they could in similar jobs back home, even though they must spend up to nine months away from the families they’re working to support.

For Helron, the higher pay means he can buy his younger brother and sister graduation robes and pay his mother’s medical bills. Charmaine Dixon suffers from severe gallstones and asthma, and her doctors worry she might stop breathing during the expensive procedure needed to alleviate her pain.

But first things first, Harvey needs money to pay for her treatments.

“Family is what matters. Myself, my future and them” he says, adding that he always looks ahead to the next challenge — the next bridge, he calls it.

“I don’t want to wait until I get to the bridge,” Helron says. “I want to prepare for a bridge that is way bigger that what is actually there so when I reach it, it’ll be chicken feed.”

American translation? A piece of cake.

Into the thick of it

America was different from the start.

From his seat in a new friend’s car, Helron noticed something strange about the other drivers.

Nearly all of them were wearing their seat belts. Nearly all of them were stopping at red lights and stop signs.

Everybody was following the rules of the road.

It was a far cry from the rural roads of Helron’s town in Jamaica, where drivers are more likely to follow rules of common courtesy — like stopping in the street to let someone cross — that don’t always align with safety.

Road-watching was more memorable than the rest of Helron’s tour of Hilton Head — first stop, Walmart. But eventually, the area began to feel familiar.

He would come home to a kitchen that smelled of rice and peas, stewed chicken and meat and other simple creations of his culinary roommates.

He would slip away to his complex’s tiny gym for half-hour workouts as often as his schedule allowed.

He’d browse Tanger Outlets some days — once buying himself a pair of flashy orange cleats — and the Internet others. He recently ordered his first gift, a gold-colored watch for a good friend.

And he made a friend, Felipe, who invited him to play soccer a few times a week at the boat landing across from Pinckney Island.

The first game was awkward. Helron stood a head taller than every other man on the field, and he was painfully aware that he was the only black player in the Latino pickup league.

Helron decided it was just another challenge. Months later, he still plays with the group every Tuesday and Thursday.

“There’s a lot of guys today so I have to play the whole time if I want to get the ball,” he says one afternoon in early August. Harvey, dressed in a Jamaican national football jersey, dribbles a ball, tipping it up with his knees, as about two dozen others warm up.

It’s been a hot, sticky day, but the boat landing is fresh and cool from a breeze coming off the Harbour River. The air smells like rain and grass.

With excited shouts and war cries, the two teams run toward the middle of the field and the game begins.

Helron lopes along the edges for a moment, his face serious, and then slips into the thick of it.

Sights set on America

Working on the pool deck one day, Helron’s ears perked at a soulful tune playing over the loudspeakers.

“My mama don't like you and she likes everyone/ And I never like to admit that I was wrong...”

Justin Bieber’s crooning makes Harvey smile.

‘It’s so great,’ he thought after hearing the song again and again, eventually grasping every verse. ‘There’s got to be something about you for why she doesn’t like you.’

Music helps Helron pass the time when work gets repetitive or hard. He also keeps his mind focused on the future and planning his next move.

At work, “it’s just a part of you in a box, and you keep your mind out of the box,” he says. “You try to maintain that mindset.”

His experience in the United States has left him more mature, and more certain than ever that he’s on the right path.

“You realize there’s a lot out there in the world to keep you out of trouble,” he says. “A lot of young guys, they will slip up, but there are nice things to do out there in the world. You just have to stay put and do what’s right.”

Even if ‘staying put’ on the right path means moving between America and Jamaica every year. Even if it means leaving home for good.

One day, Helron thinks, “I may move here.”

Rebecca Lurye: 843-706-8155, @IPBG_Rebecca