Wednesday, May 03, 2006

At The Island House Hotel

Mackinac Island, or "The Mac" as many call it, is a small island resort on the Straits of Mackinac, between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. The island is accessible only by plane or ferryboat, and because of this isolation it has become something of a popular summer hotspot. It boasts a thriving tourism industry, with hotels, restaurants, bike trails, museums, and miles of public beach. Each year, hundreds of thousands flock to this quaint Victorian-era resort, and its powerful economy is an important source of both history and revenue to the state of Michigan. Seasonal labor is the oil which lubricates this potent machine.

My wife and I met back in college--we lived in the same dorm. I was from the Lower Peninsula; she was from the Upper. Because we lived so far apart, when the 2003 spring semester ended, neither of us wished to spend the duration of summer apart from each other. So after some discussion and looking around, we decided to each apply for summer jobs working on "The Mac." Many college students pursue this option, and many will testify that their summers on Mackinac were easily among the best of their lives.

At first glance, Mackinac looks like a pretty sweet option. Nearly all employers provide their workers with employee housing and food. Mackinac itself is gorgeous, and the village in the island's southern harbor boasts some of the most beautiful vistas this side of rural New England. On top of all of this, the village prides itself on its wild nightlife, with a slew of trendy bars that cater to both tourists and resident laborers alike. And oh yeah, one more thing: motor vehicles are outlawed on Mackinac island, so all travel across the island is either on foot, by bicycle, or on horseback. The stables of Mackinac are famed for their beautiful Belgians and Percherons. Truly, living on Mackinac is like no other experience on Earth.

I arrived on Mackinac in early May of 2003, and my then-girlfriend came to the island about two weeks later. I had been hired on by the Island House Hotel as a porter, and my job was equal parts dockhand and bellhop. I hauled tourists' luggage from the ferry docks back to the hotel over a half-mile away. We had a practice of stacking baggage over the handlebars of old cruiser bicycles, and the goal was to deliver said baggage before guests arrived to sign in for their suites. An experienced dockporter can come away every day with a good $150 in tips.
My wife worked on the other side of town, in a local atrium known as The Butterfly House. As suggested by the name, Anne's employer was a greenhouse home to literally hundreds of exotic butterflies, some imported from as far away as Kenya. She was equal measures tour guide and clerk, and as an added bonus she got to live in an old home next door to her place of employment.

Working on Mackinac Island can be a surreal experience. Human traffic on the island is dense, and is often drawn in by a number of annual events, among them historical re-enactments, golf tournaments, lilac festivals, and yacht races. The whole place is like some Victorian paradise for the Chicago upper-crust, and to a poor college student working for one of the big families, the whole experience is like some strange elitist Neverland. This alien feeling, I imagine, must be that much more dramatic for the thousands of foreign guest-workers who drive the island's industry. Employers on Mackinac hire seasonal labor from all over the world; Mission Point from England and the British Isles; Island House from Eastern Europe and Russia; and nearly everybody, especially the Grand Hotel, from Jamaica and the Phillipines. I would estimate that in my house of fifty individuals, easily thirty were Jamaican. In fifth grade, I took a class trip with my father to the Island, and on the ferry ride over, one of the other chaperones pointed out the Grand, a massive resort whose half-mile porch dominated the island's southwest face. Said chaperone informed us that nearly the entire staff of the Grand was Jamaican. At ten years old, I silently reflected that on this island paradise, the only black or brown faces seen by predominantly white tourists were handling their luggage or serving their meals. Even at ten years old, this made me sad and strangely bitter.

Of course, while living on Mackinac was a great experience, I soon came to realize that working there was not. Hours were unpredictable, and employee turnover was unbelievably high. People were fired and evicted from employee housing on the most absurd grounds. Managment staff at many business, especially those owned by the wealthy Callowaert family, were abusive toward their workers. I knew of stories where a local restaurant manager had gone into his establishments in a rage, and refused to leave until he'd made one of the young waitresses cry. People were fired for calling in sick, and in one case, a Jamaican woman was threatened with termination after requesting leave. This had been her first time out of Jamaica, and not a week earlier her ten-year-old son had died. Only after the intervention of a local Episcopal minister was the woman allowed to keep her job; however the employer refused to help her defray the cost of a plane ticket.

In addition to the practices I just mentioned, the pay wasn't always enough to justify the hassles. Work schedules were erratic, wages low, and the cost of room and board was typically deducted from employee checks. As a result, I knew many student workers whose paychecks would come out at the end of two weeks literally in the negative. These charges would compound, and ultimately some workers ended up paying to be employed. Making matters worse, the location of the island made it hard to ship goods. As a result, everything from food to toiletries to cigarettes were often twice as expensive as they were on the mainland. A pack of Camel Lights on the island ran $6.50,--equivalent to an hour of my wages, and of course, the stresses of my job drove me to smoke damn near two packs a day. On a few occasions, I even exceeded three. Making matters worse, there where whispers that some employers--particularly the Island House--had a habit of docking money illegally from paychecks, a practice that, glancing at my own wage statements, I always suspected but never successfully confirmed.

As if the above factors weren't enough to sour me on my employment, I quickly discovered that the foreign laborers had it infinitely worse than I or my wife. Foreign workers, especially ethnic minorities, were treated like garbage. The best paying customer-relations jobs were almost always awarded to white employees, and the foreign workers often had to work 12 or even 16-hour days, at a fraction ($2.75/hr.) of what I was earning. The reason this was made possible was because foreign laborers were hired under guest-worker contracts established with each nation, under which American labor laws were easily circumvented. There was no limit on how long, or for how many consecutive days, foreign employees had to work, and there was no minimum wage standard to which Mackinac businesses had to adhere. On top of all of this, while a white American employee could efficiently quit one job and find another in less than a day, any foreign worker who quit or was terminated by his employer was deemed to have violated his guest-worker contract, and was thus ineligible for hiring by an American employer for a minimum of two years. For a Jamaican or Filipino, who usually depended on the summer work to feed a large family back home, such a thing could be disastrous.

Eventually, I was fired from my own job--I'd offered to be transferred to a kitchen job, and the owner of our business changed our weekend schedule without notice. I was slated to work a closing shift. This was on a day that I had specifically requested off for leave--brother-in-law's high-school graduation--and working the shift would have meant that I would miss the last departing ferry from the island. I pointed this out to the owner--Mary Callowaert--and she simply looked at me and snorted "Oh well." There was a heated argument, and after the incident, my manager was nice enough to let me go early in order to make the boat. Later, I realized that my manager was an alcoholic, and had been embezzling money from the hotel to pay his bar tabs. Turns out he embezzled money on my shift, and when I came back to work, I was informed that I had been terminated and had forty-eight hours to clean out my room. Knowing the the whispers of John's malfeasance, and his likely shifting of the blame to me, I promptly left the establishment and stormed into the hotel's office, where I proceeded to openly berate the Human-Resources Director. I nearly yelled myself hoarse, and in response, rather than have security escort me from the building, the man simply turned red and quietly hung his head in shame. I left, infuriated, and went back up into the Georgetown employee housing projects, to pack my belongings.

My final day on the island was bittersweet. It was a gorgeous day in mid-July, and I bid goodbye to my new friends, many of whom felt empathy for me and my fate, and many whom would later share the same fate that season. The carriage took me and my possessions down to the docks, and on the high side, I proposed to my wife there on the Arnold Ferry dock. I kissed her, slipping my tongue into her mouth along with a simple engagement band, engraved with a traditional Celtic knot. Rather than stay on the island without me, my then-fiancee opted to quit her job, and come back to Upper Michigan, where we could both stay for a few days with her parents until I found myself lodgings and a job in preparation for the new school year. I still feel I was done wrong in regard to my employment with the Island House hotel, but I will never regret my time staying on Mackinac. It was easily one of the best summers of my life, and it gave me a real insight into the way that people of wealth and power often carelessly play havoc with the lives of those on whose labor they depend.

Later that year, I attended my mother's Christmas family reunion, in the affluent suburb of Grosse Pointe. I ended up engaged in a debate with my cousin Richard, who was about my age and then a third-year law student. We ended up arguing about corporate labor practices, at which point I relayed my tale of the exploitations of foreign workers on Mackinac Island. Richard, perhaps not fully understanding, blithely remarked that foreign laborers in the States had it better than they ever would back home--regardless of the injustices.

"Bullshit," I shot back. "Just because their host countries can't afford to pay them a living wage, that doesn't mean we have a right to screw them over. We're America. You know, huddled masses? We should strive to be better than that. Set an example. Human rights shouldn't come at the expense of a corporate bottom-line."

Richie said nothing. I still wonder if what I said ever actually got to him, or to anyone who ever goes to visit the island. Over the course of my honeymoon, Anne and I went back for an overnight stay on the Mac. We stayed in a lovely hotel--The Lilac Tree,--rode horseback across the island, visited gift shops, ate and drank like royalty, and made love in our hotel-room jacuzzi. And throughout our stay, we smiled, talked with and tipped generously the local employees, some of whom we had known from our own days working on the island. We knew that these employees were great people, knew how hard their jobs were, and were determined to at least make a rough day a little better for each one we met.

I enjoyed my time on Mackinac Island, and I would gladly go back there again. Don't let me be the one to deter anybody from a wonderful vacation. But for anyone considering a visit to the Mac, let me say this: watch the businesses. Watch how they treat their workers, and watch where you spend your money.

And don't ever waste your money at the Island House Hotel.


Anonymous Bitch | Lab said...

I love the "it could be worse" argument. So, our standard is what other countries do and not our ideals about how we ought to live and treat one another? Nice. It's like people in a study on sharing the housework among het couples, where men sometimes tell their wives, "Hey, at least I'm not like your deadbeat cousin charlie. he sits around and swills beer all night. You rather have that?"


I haven't worked for a compnay, large or small, that doesn't abuse employees in one way or another. It's the nature of the beast. Some are worse than others, where the exploitation is truly horrible such as making people work long hours, monitoring or refusing bathroom breaks, that sort of thing. For, some it's a subtle thing where they get you so wrapped up in identifying with the "family" that you'll put in all kinds of overtime without a peep -- because you 'want' to.


This was a well-written essay, too. YOu're a great, descriptive writer. Thanks for pointing this out.

12:25 AM  
Blogger belledame222 said...

Yes indeed.

The fact that he had no answer is usually as close as you're gonna get as "you may be right," I have found with a lot of people, particularly those espousing opinions like Richie's.

1:19 AM  
Blogger Sand Gets in My Eyes said...

As a native Minnesotan, I've spent considerable time in the UP and Mac. Oddly, while reading your post, it was the large number of HS/college kids working in the endless line of fudge shops that I remembered, probably because of friends who worked there summers and the horror stories they were always too willing to share! Worker exploitation is alive and well in every sector - tourism is no different, I guess. Great post - thanks!

12:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey asshole i just got hired by the island house hotel and have been looking foreward to this summer for a very long time, but you managed to ruin that. I can only hope that youi were just a bad worker and thats why you got fired and are so bitter. I know a ton of people who have worked on the island and your the first person i've ever heard talk about the experience in sucha negetive way. So why don't you stop to think that maybe instead of providing all the kids looking forward to this summer with a warning your realy just doing nothing more than squashing hopes.

6:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Was your employment "at will" or were you forced to work there? Did you try to find employment elsewhere? Didn't the impossible conditions motivate you to get a better job ... possibly off the island? I hope you learned something from this experience.

5:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a question for you, now that it's been several years since you worked on the island would you say "looking back" that it was really as bad as you described it? If it was indeed as bad as you say, what advice would you give to those going to work on the island in the future?

7:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are not a smart man are you, or you just wanted to miss lead everyone. I knew you when you were on the island, can you say lazy?

All of the workers that come from different countries on the H2B Visa program have their wages set by the federal government that is usually higher than minimum, it is called the “prevailing wage”. Another fact is that the employers pay for the travel expenses of all of the foreign nationals both to and from their native countries, it cost around $1500 in travel and legal bills to bring one worker to the island, all paid for by the employer. Every employer on the island would rather hire an American employee but there are not any that want to do the job. The foreign workers come to America to earn a living and want to work as much as possible. They have families back home that they send money and household items back to, things that are not available in their countries. If they did have an employer that let them work 12 – 16 hours per day they would love it, they are here for the money and the overtime is what it is all about. Another question is if the employers are so bad why do the workers come back year after year? I know about 18 workers that have been working for the dreaded Calloweart family for 12 years straight, they can work for anyone else if they wanted to but they keep coming back, I wonder why?

The people that do not make enough money to pay their rent are the tipped employees on the island that make the $2.75 per hour that you mentioned, so they would get a negative check because they have to pay taxes on their tip money that they have to claim (8% of their gross sales) and the $50.00 for room rent. Of course each waitress makes about $100.00 per shift on a bad day and around $300.00 on a good one.

It’s a little funny that Mary Calloweart said you couldn’t get the day off and go to your bother graduation, you were a porter right? She doesn’t even work in the hotel, she works downtown and rarely even come up to the hotel much less tell you you can’t have the day off, that’s ridicules.

In my experience on Mackinac Island it is very hard to get fired, they are always looking for help and will put up with hung over, late, unskilled and plain bad employee because they have no choice because a bad employee is better that none. Owners and manages struggle everyday of the summer to make sure that they make enough money in the 3 months that they are busy, some people are with the program other can’t hack it and have to leave in July. I guess you’re the later.

12:18 AM  
Anonymous Anne said...

Wow, we've got some smart posters around here. It always fascinates me when people can read a blog written under a pseudonym with no photographs and limited personal info and tell us, "I know you, I can identify you, you're gonna get in sooooo much trouble."

I'm sure you worked there, but you didn't know Milo. Milo worked hard, voluntarily changed jobs when another business came up short-handed, and was THE most reliable employee that resteraunt had. Unfortunately, the only other witnesses when the till came up short were foreign nationals who were afraid of losing their jobs.

I was fortunate. I never worked for the Callowert family, and my employers were fantastic. All the same, I watched my roommate's boyfriend develop a kidney infection from being denied bathroom breaks for twelve hours straight all season long. I watched my then boss scramble for local support for a mother who had lost her son and put pressure on the business owner threatening to fire her. I watched Vic Callowert on one of his weekly rampages through his downtown businesses, screaming at an ice cream girl until she cried. I watched his bratty grandchildren TEAR UP a fudge shop and scream and shout at the employees there, "You can't do anything, I'm a Callowert!"

These are not good people.

As Milo said, there are a lot of wonderful places on the island, and some truly great employers exist there. I, for one, will make it a point to take my dollars to the businesses that treat their employees well. Say what you will, but not a penny of my money will go to a business owned by that family.

8:16 AM  

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