A new federal lawsuit filed by a civil rights group claims a high-end golf resort outside Charleston underpaid its Jamaican guest workers and did not help them repay the costs of landing a job at one of South Carolina’s most exclusive communities.
The March 6 complaint from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) targets Kiawah Island Golf Resort over employees it hired through a federal H-2B guest worker program. The program allows the temporary employment of foreign workers if a business cannot find enough local workers to do the job.
Kiawah Island is a prestigious resort community located on a barrier island about 20 miles southwest of Charleston.
However, the lawsuit claims the resort failed to reimburse workers for recruitment fees over the past three years, as well as visa and travel expenses, which federal regulations require. The lawsuit also claims workers were charged “excessive fees” for housing and transportation and did not receive a pay increase as required in 2013. The lawsuit claims all these factors caused the workers’ net pay to fall below the “prevailing wage” that the program requires.
“Kiawah Island Golf Resort may pride itself on showing guests Southern hospitality, but it treated these workers from Jamaica with anything but hospitality,” Sarah Rich, SPLC staff attorney, said in a statement. “These workers left their country for what they thought would be a great job opportunity. Instead, they were taken advantage of by an employer unwilling to pay them the wages they were owed.”
The Virginia-based LLC which operates the resort disputed the claims as “untruths” in its own statement. “Kiawah Island Golf Resort has been an active participant in the H-2B guest worker program for the past 15 years. We value all of our employees and have operated our H-2B visa program in accordance with the applicable laws. Kiawah Island Golf Resort intends to vigorously defend the lawsuit, which is replete with misstatements and untruths.”
The resort’s guest worker program got brief statewide attention in 2012, when U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters that he had personally lobbied the Department of Labor to approve a waiver for Kiawah shortly before it hosted golf’s 2012 PGA Championship. Graham frequently pointed to the program as evidence that some immigrants are needed for jobs Americans are not willing to do.
The lawsuit estimates that 500 workers have participated in the program as cooks, dishwashers, housekeepers, bellhops, and cabana attendants. Four are named in the complaint.
Jay Harper contributed to this report