Kiawah and Jamaican workers reach $2.3 million deal to end lawsuit

Kiawah Island Golf Resort (above) has settled a lawsuit alleging Jamaican workers weren't paid enough. File/Staff

Kiawah Island Inn Co. and lawyers representing a large group of Jamaican employees have agreed on a $2.3 million deal to settle a federal class action lawsuit over claims that the luxury golf resort failed to properly pay its guest workers.

Documents filed May 27 in U.S. District Court in Charleston said both sides are asking a federal judge to approve the deal to avoid further litigation. Kiawah denied doing anything wrong.

“I think the settlement document speaks best about our position on the case,” said Roger Warren, president of Kiawah Island Golf Resort.

The agreement says that about 240 Jamaican housekeepers, cooks and other service workers would share $2 million. Kiawah agreed to pay an additional $300,000 in legal fees.

Filed a year ago by attorneys with the Southern Poverty Law Center, the lawsuit opened a window into the use of foreign students and guest workers to fill jobs during peak tourist seasons.

Jim Knoepp, an attorney for the center, said he hopes the settlement sends a message to employers. “If you don’t pay them properly, you’re likely to get sued. It’s not worth the risk.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center and other critics say resorts and restaurants across the country too often use federal visa rules to legally hire foreign workers and then cheat them out of wages.

They argue that the program creates a fundamental imbalance between employer and employee because employers can threaten deportation if workers complain. Critics also say the practice of hiring foreign guest workers can undercut wages of local workers.

But some resorts and business groups say they need foreign students and guest workers to fill jobs during busy vacation seasons. They maintain that they have trouble finding enough qualified local workers.

The Southern Poverty Law Center noted that U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham in 2013 told reporters in the Upstate that he had “to beg the Department of Labor to give (Kiawah) a waiver so they could get people from Jamaica to come in here and service the PGA” golf tournament.

The lawsuit against Kiawah alleged that the resort hired a Florida recruiter to find seasonal workers from Jamaica. Jamaican workers then paid about $600 to $700 to obtain H2B visas and pay other travel fees. The lawsuit alleged that Kiawah failed to reimburse employees for those costs as required under law.

In addition, the lawsuit said Kiawah deducted about $330 month for housing in a West Ashley apartment complex, often with four to six workers sharing a unit. The resort also deducted about $72 a month to shuttle workers to and from the island. Because of these deductions, workers’ wages were below the minimum level under the law, the lawsuit said.

According to court documents, lawyers for the Southern Poverty Law Center and local attorneys obtained 200,000 pages of documents from Kiawah before both sides struck a deal.

Court documents said that 35 Jamaican workers declined to participate in the lawsuit, leaving as many as 240 current and former employees eligible to receive some settlement money. A judge will hold a hearing soon to determine whether the settlement is fair. No date for that hearing has been set.

Reach Tony Bartelme at 843-937-5554.

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