Florida Keys

Workers ride this bus to better-paying jobs in paradise. They’re a long way from home

With the sun just coming up, a bus filled with more than 50 sleepy people makes its way through Florida City and onto the 18 Mile Stretch on the way to the Keys. The passengers who look out the windows on both sides see the veld-like green and wheat-colored landscape of the Everglades.

Soon they’ll see water. And their places of employment. They’re heading to construction and landscaping jobs. To hotels and resorts to clean rooms. To cook food and wash dishes in kitchens at some of the island chain’s most popular restaurants.

They’re heading to what tourists consider paradise. But for these workers, the trip is a daily grind.

The route from Miami-Dade to the Keys is in greater demand these days as hotels and restaurants are back up and running two years after Hurricane Irma — and as the options for affordable housing have dwindled through the years, and been made worse by the storm.

The public transit express route has added buses to accommodate the growing ridership.

Day and night, about once an hour, the bus goes all the way to Marathon and back to South Miami-Dade, more than 70 miles each way. By the time the 4 p.m. bus returns to Key Largo, it has picked up day-shift workers from the Middle Keys and Islamorada. Many people leaving the northernmost Keys are without seats on their way back home to Miami-Dade, after a full day of being on their feet.

“The people in Key Largo, they’ve been working all day, and they have to stand up,” said a passenger bound for Marathon.

The Florida Keys’ tourism-dependent economy has long relied on people from Miami-Dade County to make it run. But that reliance keeps growing two years after Hurricane Irma destroyed much of the archipelago’s supply of “affordable” housing, including the mobile homes and downstairs enclosures where many of the local workforce lived.

A report released by the University of Florida in September 2018, a year after Irma struck, estimated that about 3,000 people — roughly 4 percent of the Keys’ population — left Monroe County after the Category 4 storm made finding an affordable place to live impossible for many.

Meanwhile, more and more people from Miami-Dade answer the call to fill the void left by those local employees who escaped the economic hardship that remains a large part of Irma’s fallout in the Keys.

“The commuters are making up a huge percentage of our workforce, and many of our businesses need more employees,” said Judy Hull, director of the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce.

The riders

Samuel Jean Joseph, 27, gets off the Dade-Monroe Express bus as it makes its way down to Marathon, Florida, on Aug. 27, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

Among the riders this weekday morning is Samuel Jean Joseph, a 27-year-old aspiring musician and graphic artist looking for a higher-paying job than he can find on the mainland. He wants to earn enough money to go back to school.

Joseph was on his way to Hawk’s Cay Resort on Duck Key, just to the north of the Middle Keys city of Marathon, for a job interview that had begun days earlier on the phone.

“I came down to see if I could finish the process,” Joseph said.

He wasn’t looking for any position in particular at the oceanfront resort, just something that pays more than he can make in Florida City or Homestead, which he said is never above $8.50 an hour, pay that also comes with limited hours.

“Most of the jobs here don’t go below $10,” Joseph said. “If you’re getting $8.50 an hour and you’re barely getting hours, it hinders you.”

The bus

Passengers ride the Dade-Monroe Express bus as it makes its way down to Marathon, Florida, on Aug. 27, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

Data compiled from the Miami-Dade County Department of Transportation and Public Works, which operates the Miami-Dade-Keys bus, shows a significant jump in ridership from 2018 to 2019, indicating more people from the mainland are seeking and finding employment in the Keys.

From May 2018 to May 2019, weekday ridership rose almost 14 percent, from about 777 people a day to around 885 riders, according to the transit department figures. Saturday ridership during that time frame increased more than 17 percent. On Sundays, ridership jumped more than 35 percent, according to the data.

“As you can see, there has been a significant increase in ridership from year to year, particularly your average Sunday ridership,” said Karla Damian, media and public relations officer for the county transportation department.

About nine buses a day go all the way to Marathon from Florida City, which is more than 70 miles. There are multiple stops in between from Key Largo to Marathon. The riders tell the driver they want to get off and the driver pulls over. There’s no signal, like a cord or a button to push. Also, nine buses only go as far as Islamorada.

The fare is $2.60 for a one-way trip, which can run 40 minutes to an hour.

On the job

Taniyah Homes, 17, recently started working at Kmart in Key Largo. She already had one job on the mainland at Domino’s Pizza and turned to the Keys when she needed to find another source of income.

“They hire you faster down here,” she said.

Aarien Nesmith, 28, has been working at Atlantic Trash and Transfer in Key Largo for about a year. Like many on the bus, he sought work in the Keys for the availability of jobs, the pay and the hours. He also said the conditions are better than in Florida City or Homestead.

“There’s more work down here,” Nesmith said. “It’s also a safe place, there’s low crime and they’re always hiring.”

George M. Marakas, chairman of the South Dade Chamber of Commerce, said it’s a common theme that he’s observed for years, and that’s because Monroe County is a major international tourist destination with a constant need for workers.

“For quite some time, workers in the Keys have commuted from Homestead and Florida City to work in the Upper Keys primarily due to an imbalance between wages and housing costs,” Marakas said. “The opportunities available in the Keys to access a tourist trade and all that comes with it, tips, etc., serves as a further enticement.”

Cost of living

Roberto Lopez, 52, rides the Dade-Monroe Express bus as it makes its way down to Marathon, Florida on Tuesday, August 27, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

But better work opportunities don’t mean better housing opportunities.

Many people working in the Keys can’t afford to live there comfortably, even with making more money than they can on the mainland.

According to the latest U.S. Census figures, the median gross rent — that’s rent combined with expenses like taxes and utilities — is as much as $600 more a month in Islamorada than in Florida City, where it’s about $1,067.

“The Florida Keys is a booming economy, with many positions that are unfilled due to the lack of population and affordable housing,” said Elizabeth Moscynski, president of the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce.

The workforce

Rob LeBrun, 45, general manager at Lorelei Restaurant and Cabana Bar, a popular bay side eatery in Islamorada, says his daytime executive chef, Bernard Etienne, “is like a computer.”

“He’s got one of those minds that knows the prices of things, and he knows what to order,” LeBrun said. “He’s like, ‘I’m going to order from them because it’s about 20 cents cheaper.’ He’s very talented.”

Etienne, 47, who now lives in Cutler Ridge and drives to work in Islamorada, moved to Homestead in 1999 from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. His prowess with numbers likely comes largely due to the job he held in his home country.

“I was a teacher of mathematics and chemistry,” Etienne said.

Continuing his profession in the United States would have meant years’ more education, he said, which he could not afford at the time. After working in several fast food restaurants in Homestead and in the Keys, he landed a job at Lorelei, where he worked his way up over the past 20 years.

Even back then, working in the Keys was a better prospect for South Miami-Dade workers looking for higher pay and enough hours, Etienne said. In 1999, the McDonald’s in Florida City paid him $4.50 an hour. The one in Tavernier, in the Upper Keys between Key Largo and Islamorada, paid $6 an hour, he said, and they offered more hours.

“You could work double rather than have two jobs,” Etienne said.

All 15 members of Etienne’s kitchen staff live in Homestead or Florida City, and five take the bus to work.

LeBrun said knowing his staff is willing to drive, carpool or take the bus more than 45 miles one way goes a long way in identifying a quality worker.

“If I can get somebody who is willing to either get up early and take the bus to get here, or will get rides from someone else, I know that they’re dependable, and being dependable is very important down here,” LeBrun said. “You can lose one person, and your whole day can be messed up because one dishwasher didn’t show up.

“And, maybe we do pay them a couple more bucks than up in Florida City or Homestead, but, to us, it’s worth it when you find the right person.”

The Dade-Monroe Express bus makes its way down to Marathon from Florida City on Tuesday, August 27, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

The interview

Around 2 p.m. on this day, the northbound bus picked up a group of people on Duck Key. Among them was Samuel Jean Joseph, the young man heading to Hawks Cay in the morning hoping to find a job. On the way down the Keys, Joseph spoke optimistically of his chances at landing work. But he wasn’t sure how it would go. On the way home, when asked how the interview went, he smiled, and said, “I got it.”

He’s going to be an attendant who brings guests’ luggage to their rooms and parks their cars. Pay is $8.50 an hour, but his new boss said there will be a lot of money to be made in tips. It seems like the perfect job for an ambitious person like Joseph looking not only for a job but an opportunity to save money.

“If you’re rich, this is the place to be,” he said of the Keys as he looked out of the bus window pointing to expensive waterfront houses. “If you’re looking for work, this is the place to be.”

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David Goodhue covers the Florida Keys and South Florida for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald. Before joining the Herald, he covered Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.