The Block Island Times

New committee formed to assist international workers

By Lily O'Gara | Aug 06, 2014

This is the second part in a multi-part series The Block Island Times is doing on the international workers that live and work on the island in the summer. (Click here to read the first installment.)

With more than 200 students from all over the world living and working on Block Island for three months this summer, a new committee has been formed to assist and support them.

This International Student Workers Coalition (ISWC) has been working with the students since the beginning of the season, and the group made its first official presentation to the Town Council on Monday, Aug. 4.

The students come to Block Island through the U.S. Department of State’s Summer Work Travel program. They hail from more than 12 different countries and, according to the Coalition’s estimates, work for approximately 31 island establishments.

“The mission of the coalition is to welcome, inform, safeguard and support the international student workers who live and work in our community,” Bill Penn, president of Block Island Residents Association, said. The ISWC is a subcommittee of BIRA.

The ISWC and BIRA are working to “facilitate and coordinate all the number of stakeholders on the island, and off the island, that interface with the students,” Penn said. Such stakeholders include the U.S. State Department, the students’ sponsor organizations (Dynamic Global Exchange, CIEE, Alliance Abroad), the Harbor Church’s International Workers Center, the Chamber of Commerce, the Island Free Library, the Block Island Medical Center, the Planning Board, the New Shoreham Police Department, Helping Hands and, hopefully soon, Penn said, the Town of New Shoreham itself.

While the members of the Coalition feel that most of the students have a positive experience on the island, Penn said there is still a “long list of issues,” some of which are about living and working conditions that are not up to par.

In a previous letter to the Town Council, Coalition and Planning Board member Socha Cohen wrote, “We are happy to report that most employers on the island offer the students clean rooms, free or reduced-cost meals, free or affordable transportation and reliable work hours. Unfortunately, there are also reports of unacceptable working conditions, including unreasonable hours, untimely fees, verbal abuse, intimidation, and poor or inadequate housing conditions.”

The Coalition decided that adequate housing was the number one priority, and addressed this problem at the Aug. 4 Town Council meeting.

According to an informal housing survey conducted by the Coalition, there are three main housing issues. First, there are over 80 students who have to share a bathroom with more than six people. This violates Rhode Island General Law Title 45, Towns and Cities, Chapter 45-24.3-12 (c), Housing Maintenance and Occupancy Code, which states that “At least one flush water closet, lavatory basin, and bathtub or shower… must be supplied for each six (6) persons.” Ten employers are responsible for this overcrowding, partly because there is no room to add bathrooms. The Coalition therefore recommended that outdoor showers be added to help alleviate the problem.

“Why are we looking for solutions when there are standards?” asked First Warden Kim Gaffett.

Secondly, eight to 10 students are residing in rooms without windows for ventilation. One story that really stuck out, Cohen said, was that one room had been painted prior to the students’ arrival. Because there was no window, the paint never fully dried. It ruined many of the students’ belongings, and mildew grew all over the room.

“That to me — and to the coalition — is unacceptable,” Cohen said.

It’s also in violation of Rhode Island General Law Title 45, Towns and Cities, Chapter 45-24.3-8 (c), Housing Maintenance and Occupancy Code, which states, “Every habitable room must have at least one window or skylight facing directly outdoors which can be easily opened, or other device to adequately ventilate the room.”

The third issue, overcrowding, involves nearly all students. Rhode Island General Law Title 45, Towns and Cities, Chapter 45-24.3-11 (2) (i), Housing Maintenance and Occupancy Code states, “In every dwelling unit for two (2) or more rooms, every room occupied for sleeping purposes must contain at least seventy (70) square feet of floor space for the first occupant, and at least fifty (50) square feet of floor space for each additional occupant.”

However, according to Cohen, one employer may house as many as six to eight students per room. The ISWC suggested a compromise of no more than four students per room.

To combat these issues, the ISWC proposed that both bathroom and general overcrowding, as well as a lack of ventilation, would trigger a notice of non-compliance. In addition, the members asked that these notices allow for a one-time maximum of 10 days for correction, rather than the two notices of up to 30 days each outlined in R.I.G.L. Title 45. It argued that, if an employer took the whole 60 days to correct the issue and/or appealed the violations to the Housing Board, the students would be gone before the issue was resolved. Lastly, the ISWC suggested the possibility of hiring seasonal zoning/housing enforcement officers to assist Don Thimble, the island’s minimum housing inspector.

“We’re their host community,” Penn said. “We’re their family, to some of them. It’s time that we step up and take some positive action.”

Thimble was in attendance at the meeting, and revealed that he had not yet received any complaints this summer.

Cohen and Penn said that the students are most likely afraid to file complaints, as they might be afraid of repercussions.

“Their culture is that the police and the government are not their friends,” Penn said.

Councilor Norris Pike suggested that a coordinator — perhaps Raul Mickle, who serves as the students’ mentor at the Harbor Church’s International Workers Center — field the complaints and pass them along to Thimble. Thimble agreed that this would be an acceptable method of communication, and maintained that he would investigate any complaints filed.

Thimble said, too, in response to the ISWC’s violation notice request, that the compliance period of up to 30 days for each violation is state law. Thimble said that he seldom allows more than 10 days for correction, and that he can issue a notice of violation to be completed immediately if he feels there is an emergency situation.

Before the students arrived, Thimble said, each room was inspected. However, there are 189 rooms housing 493 employees on the island, and routinely returning for inspection would be “almost impossible,” even if additional personnel were hired.

The suggestion was made by several people, including Councilor Ken Lacoste, that a cap be put on the number of students allowed on the island in the summer. Facilities could be evaluated beforehand, Lacoste said, and only the number of students that could be adequately accommodated would be placed. Cohen was afraid this would negatively affect the economy, as student workers are a key source of summer labor, but Pike said employers would simply have to upgrade facilities if they needed more workers.

Island resident Chris Blane said there are plenty of accessory units on the island that are not utilized in the summer months. These could be used for worker housing.

In the end, the Town Council agreed to, in the words of Lacoste, “draw a line in the sand,” and issue a statement that inadequate living conditions will not be tolerated. The ISWC seemed content with this declaration, and also with hearing that Thimble would investigate all complaints filed by the ISWC on behalf of the students.

“We’re looking to change the system, not to attack people,” ISWC member Donna Corey said. “We want to engage everybody for the good of the students.”

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