This story is part of a Michigan Migrant Workforce Series powering the hospitality, agriculture and manufacturing sectors.
Merrick Jones releases his grip on the horse’s reins as he dons a yellow raincoat. He has a tight schedule which has already been postponed twice due to the weather.
Jones guides one of the many cars crossing Mackinac Island with precious cargo on a rainy September day. Horses carrying barrels filled to the brim with food, clothing and household items signal both the end of the tourist season and an informal holiday for the island’s migrant labor force.
Approximately 1,000 people from outside the United States, primarily Jamaica, come to work in the hotels, restaurants and stables on Mackinac Island each spring and return in the fall. Throughout the season, they buy items to send home on “Barrel Day”.
Across the island, hundreds of 77-gallon barrels line the hallways of staff dormitories. The barrels are filled with non-perishable items like cans of tuna, bags of rice and condensed milk. Next to them are the luxury items – flat screen TVs, stereo speakers, power tools, weight bench or stroller.
Each company has a time slot to take barrels out of their workers and pick them up. That day, the workers at Mission Point Resort played Tetris by stacking barrels and boxes. There are no cars on the island, so it’s up to the workhorses to pull the trays to the dock.
The load is transported across Lake Michigan where a semi-trailer is waiting to take it to Florida. Three weeks later, he will arrive in Jamaica as the workers end their working season and return home.
Opportunity so good it’s like “hot bread”
When Amoy Sutherland was a little girl, the barrels were a sign that her mother was coming home soon.
She remembers standing in the undulating gallery atop Montego Bay airport, watching her mother board a plane to work at Sandals Resorts in the Bahamas. At 10, it was the first time she and her mother had separated.
“I didn’t want her to see me cry,” Sutherland said. “I kept hiding my tears because I didn’t want her to be sad or feel guilty for leaving at the time, but it was sad.”
When her mother found a job in Michigan, the trip was longer, but the pay was more important. The exchange rate between the US dollar and the Jamaican is almost one in 150.
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Sutherland jokes that it was “a childhood dream” to receive American items like a Samsung flip phone. She was a fashionista outfitted with the latest clothes and her high school clique was made up of kids like her. They had everything they asked for, at the expense of time spent with their parents.
Sutherland understands his mother’s sacrifice as an adult.
“She had the opportunity to do more of herself which would eventually be passed on to her children,” Sutherland said.
Today, Sutherland and his mother work together at the Mission Point Resort on Mackinac Island. This summer was Sutherland’s second season working at reception.
Prior to entering the hospitality industry, Sutherland worked as an accountant in Jamaica. Her previous career may have required more education, but it paid half as well.
Because of this, her friends and neighbors harass her with a question every time she comes back: How do I get an American job?
Money and experience are an investment for their community, she said.
“We think, ‘I want to own a house, I want to build something to leave for my children,'” she said. “It’s hot bread. A lot of people want the opportunity to come here.
Working on Mackinac Island has become a family tradition for many migrant workers and has become a key part of recruiting for business owners.
Merrick Jones, the carriage driver, was recommended by his older brother Desroy.
Desory has been working on the island since 1999. He has held a variety of jobs, from housekeeping to doorman to street cleaner. One summer the horses caught his attention and he asked to learn to drive the car. Now he talks affectionately to Mike and Boomer, his Belgian blond horses, as if they were old friends.
“When you are here you miss home,” he said. “When you are home, you are ready to go back to work.”
Sometimes workers continue to stay in the United States to build up their savings. The two Jones brothers moved to a Colorado ski resort last year after their season ended in Mackinac.
The visa program used by employers to hire migrants like Desroy allows workers to work in the United States for up to three years in a row. Last summer, many workers took advantage of the extension program to stay in the country and not get stuck in the backlog of embassy red tape and travel restrictions created by the pandemic.
When Desroy first arrived on Mackinac Island, he left behind his one-year-old daughter. Two decades later, her American paycheck helped send her to college.
At the end of the season in October, Desroy will not extend this year. He wants to see his little girl graduating.
It took 18 years for Mission Point hunter Howard Samuels to build his “dream house”.
Workers on Mackinac Island take day trips to the mainland to big box stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s to stock up on tools and cleaning supplies – all items that cost more in Jamaica due import taxes.
Each year Samuels is added to what is now a two-story house with several bedrooms. It has a vegetable garden outside and a tenant lives in the space below. Samuels shows pride by posting photos on his phone. He talks about plans to improve the roof for the rainy season and complains about the neighbors crowding it in.
Samuels owns a house in Jamaica because of his life in Michigan. Like so many migrant workers in Mackinac, he considers the two islands his home and has brought a member of his family to work with him.
Howard’s son, Dennis, joined him at Mission Point five years ago. Like a scripted scene in a romantic comedy, Dennis fell in love with a hotel guest. They are now married and live with their daughter in Saint-Ignace.
Howard says when COVID-19 cases are faked, he wants to bring his granddaughter to Jamaica to see the other side of his life.
Related: Michigan needs more foreign workers, but permission for migrant workers is scarce and expensive
‘I create families here’
On a September afternoon, there is a pause in the constant flow of guests arriving at Mission Point. Shequeira Davis comes out from behind the front desk and finds a quiet spot in the lobby to FaceTime her daughter, Anna.
She knows it’s the middle of the school day for Anna, but she tries anyway. Anna answers and presses the phone so she can continue to interact with her Zoom class.
She says a hello before complaining about internet problems. Virtual school has been a difficult adjustment for Anna, who is generally an excellent student. Davis tries to offer technical assistance nearly two thousand miles away.
Davis learned to be a long-distance parent after seven years of dividing his time at home and at work.
She is on a first name basis with returning guests at Mission Point. She often receives Facebook messages asking if she will be there before guests book their stay, she said.
She jokes that the reception and doorbell, where Samuels court, compete for the most positive reviews. Davis creates personal relationships with his guests, even agreeing to babysit when parents go out in the evenings.
“I feel like I’m creating families here,” she said.
Her own family, mother and 9 year old daughter are waiting for her in St. Mary, Jamaica. This year has been his longest time away from Anna after Davis extended last winter to work in Florida.
While Davis is gone, Anna stays with her maternal grandmother and has frequent visits from her father who lives an hour away. During the summers, Anna stays on her paternal grandparents’ farm where she raises cows, chickens, rabbits and a goat.
It’s been their routine since Anna was two.
“Every year when I come home, one of the first questions she asks me, ‘How long are you going to stay with me? And she will ask a lot of that, ”Davis said. “It’s really sad, because I know deep down that in a few months I’ll be gone again.”
She looks forward to the six months at home where she can be a full-time mom. She loves taking her little girl to the beach or for a special dinner at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Browsing through the photos on her phone, Davis’s face drops a bit when she realizes that Anna’s photos are all a year and a half old now. She says she may one day apply for U.S. citizenship, but for now her life is in Jamaica.
Recently, Davis inherited the house from his deceased aunt across from his mother. This will be the home for her and Anna. In his barrel is a bunch of home improvement supplies like faucets and cabinet knobs.
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