At a time when Lee County’s unemployment rate is almost 14 percent and about 38,000 residents are jobless, Publix is paying people from South America to work at some of its Southwest Florida supermarkets.
For the last three years, Publix has hired hundreds of Peruvians and Brazilians for its stores in south Fort Myers and Naples during tourist season because the company says it can’t find locals to fill those spots.
The South American cashiers, baggers, deli, bakery and grocery clerks work part time at more than 20 area locations, said Publix spokeswoman Shannon Patten. The company began hiring them in late 2008, when Lee’s unemployment was about 6 percent.
“It is our experience that potential workers that live year ’round near our stores are interested in permanent jobs, not temporary ones,” Patten said.
Many Southwest Florida jobseekers and the people who help them disagree.
“Are you kidding?” asked Rita Hursell. The 46-year-old nurse’s aide, who’s been out of work since 2007, is on food stamps and lives with her parents in Lehigh Acres.
Hursell, who just completed a computer class at the Career and Service Center in Fort Myers, said she’d be happy to work at Publix even on a part-time, temporary basis. “I wouldn’t mind at all,” she said.
“Everybody–everybody–who comes here would be happy to do a temporary assignment. Even two or three days. They’re prepared to do anything for any amount of time,” said Angelicchio [Pat Angelicchio, who owns Snelling Personnel Services in Fort Myers]. “I find it very hard to believe a company as large and well-regarded as Publix would bring people in from so far away when so many here are desperate for work. In fact, it makes me not want to shop there.”
The Publix workers, who are forbidden to speak to the press, have short-term visas known as J1s and are college students, Patten said.
Although numbers aren’t broken down by county, there are 7,756 J1 visa-holders in Florida, said U.S. State Department spokeswoman Darlene Kirk. The department calls it an “Exchange Visitor Program,” allowing foreign college students to “become directly involved in the daily life of the people of the United States through travel and temporary work.” Publix doesn’t reciprocate in the exchange.
“Since our students come from the southern hemisphere,” Patten said, “their summer break coincides nicely with our winter tourist season. . . . These students are not replacing American workers.”
South Seas Island Resort on Captiva has about five J1 visa workers doing jobs locals don’t want, said Joe Palmer, human resources director.
“If we can, we always recruit or staff locally,” Palmer said. “The fact is, we’re 40 minutes from the Sanibel toll and if you’re a breakfast server, that means getting up at 4 a.m. But to anyone in the Fort Myers community who’s willing, we say, ‘Please, come apply. We’re happy to talk to you.'”
So, she’s [Barbara Hartman, spokeswoman for the Career and Service Center in Fort Myers] got an idea for Publix: Check out her agency. “With more than 38,000 people looking for work in Lee County, we’d love to help them with their recruitment effort.”