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Immigrants fill out ranks of workers in Key West, keeping the island humming

Carpenter Vitek Zvolsky, a Czech Republic native, is one of the many Europeans who fill the ranks of Key West workers.

CHARLES TRAINOR JR. | Miami Herald

Carpenter Vitek Zvolsky, a Czech Republic native, is one of the many Europeans who fill the ranks of Key West workers.

KEY WEST — The housekeeper who serves breakfast in the courtyard at the Island City House won a green card lottery in Poland. The Czech finish carpenter who remodels multimillion-dollar homes in the Historic District was sponsored by a construction company.

Down the tourist drag of Duval Street, the pretty Argentine hostess at Hard Rock Cafe is on a student visa, and the frail man who sells cigars he rolls himself came from Cuba on a "bad boat."

And at a tacky T-shirt shop, the Romanian who operates the cash register is paid under the table.

International workers have long been a necessity — dating to the 19th century when Bahamians filled jobs as wreckers and spongers — to supplement the limited local labor pool.

That remains the case, despite a December unemployment rate of 7.9 percent in Monroe County — lower than most of Florida but high for the island 130 miles from the mainland.

Just three years ago, jobs were so plentiful in Key West that landing one often required simply filling out an application and showing up sober.

"There are jobs that Americans just won't do, as the lodging and restaurant industries have found out," said Jodi Weinhofer, president of the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West. "Americans don't want to clean toilets and wash dishes for a living."

There are no statistics available on the number of foreigners (legal or illegal) among Key West's work force of nearly 15,000. But Key West immigration attorney Wayne Dapser said he thinks the recession has led to a decrease in illegal foreign workers.

The limited number of jobs available usually go first to workers with proper papers.

"What I've been seeing more and more is people saying they have to consider going back to their home (countries)," said Dapser, who estimates that about 75 percent of the workers are now legal ones. "They say they can't make it here because it's harder to get work."

Lack of jobs wasn't the case for most of the past two decades, when the 8-square-mile island became a popular second-home market and international tourist destination attracting more than 2 million visitors annually.

The Casa Marina and two other luxury hotels were so short of workers 20 years ago that they became among the first in Key West to use recruiting companies. K and E Services placed help-wanted ads in Polish newspapers in Buffalo and Chicago for housekeepers.

"That's how the Poles got started in Key West," historian Tom Hambright said. "I'm not sure how the Czechs got started. But they just started showing up. And a few years ago, we started getting a whole bunch of people from Uzbekistan."

The arrivals of the Uzbeks coincided with that country, formerly part of the Soviet Union, allowing the United States to set up an air base there to support its war efforts in Afghanistan, Hambright said.

Five years ago, Aneta Swiecicka won a green card lottery in Poland. Although she and her husband were struggling to make ends meet, it was a difficult choice to leave family for the unknown.

"But we wanted to make a better life for our kids," Swiecicka said. "We had to try."

Her husband works two maintenance jobs, and she works six days a week as a housekeeper. The couple saved enough to buy a fixer-upper home.

Their preteen kids, who knew no English when they arrived, each have been named student of the month.

"We are living the American dream," she said.

So are Abiy and Lidya Frew of Ethiopia. He came to the United States at age 18 for a better eduction at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Last month the couple opened a shop on Duval Street called International Roots, which sells his art and merchandise in the colors of the Ethiopian flag — red, green and gold.

"Everyone makes us feel welcome here," he said.

That wasn't always the case.

In 2000, there was some rebellion against illegal foreign workers. The State Attorney's Office received complaints from people claiming they lost jobs to those willing to work for lower wages. The then Immigration and Naturalization Service arrested 17 people in "Operation Hemingway."

But boom years followed. From 2003 to 2007, "help wanted" signs were everywhere. The labor shortage was exacerbated by a mass exodus of working residents because of Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Unemployment fell to as low as 2 percent despite many people working two or three jobs.

"It got so bad businesses were stealing other people's employees," said former Key West Mayor Jimmy Weekley, a city commissioner and owner of two Fausto's food markets.

Weekley was among employers who supplemented his work force with Eastern Europeans. Five still work in his deli.

The city got an eye-opener on how important foreign workers are to its economy in the spring of 2006, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement cracked down on illegal employees across the country. Even many legal workers were afraid to leave their homes.

"The immigration scare shut everything down for three to five days," Dapser said. "It put the fear of God into a lot of employers, who were more reluctant to hire workers."

Immigrants fill out ranks of workers in Key West, keeping the island humming 02/05/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 5, 2011 3:31am]

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