Nantucket’s most surprising import is its daily workforce.
It can be easy to miss, but every day, hundreds of people commute across Nantucket Sound from Cape Cod, Rhode Island, and even the suburbs of Boston to join Nantucket’s workforce. During the off-season, particularly in the spring, Hy-line estimates that commuters constitute a third of their passengers. Meanwhile, Island Airlines flies between sixty and one hundred sixty commuters to the island each day. Many of these commuters are contractors, electricians, and other tradesmen, but the island’s commuting workforce also extends to some surprising industries and professions.
The money’s here. That’s what it comes down to,” says commuter Jeff Quest. Quest is headed home to Harwich, MA after a day of delivering sheetrock on Nantucket, a trip he has made countless times over the last thirty years. The boat is standing room only.
While some laborers are committed to short-term contract work, many are seasoned veterans with decades of daily trips under their belts. For a worker like Jeff Quest, he’ll spend two hours a day on the boat and at least eight hours at work, but it’s all worth it. On Nantucket, contractors like Quest can bill higher than they can on the mainland.
Limited housing is a major reason why these commuting workers choose not to live on Nantucket. Soaring housing costs, high demand, and low availability forces people into dingy basements or overcrowded apartments, and many people don’t want anything to do with it. “Nantucket has changed so much,” says Peter Herman, who is also on the ferry with Quest headed home on the mainland. “I used to be such a free bird over here.” Herman started a heating and cooling business on the island, but when he moved to the Cape in 2001, it was easier to keep his business on Nantucket rather than uproot it. He now commutes back and forth every day.
While many Nantucketers might be well aware of commuters like Jeff Quest and Peter Herman who travel here every day to do trade work, the commuting workforce also extends to more surprising businesses. FedEx, UPS, and the U.S. Post Office all fly a number of their employees to the island each day. Stop & Shop employs a number of commuters as well. More locally, Marine Home Center, one of the largest employers on the island, operates its own planes and flies over a quarter of its employees back and forth each day. Its first commuter started making the daily trip in 1982. “It went from one, to three, to seven, and it just kept growing and growing,” says marketing manager Linda McAndrews, who is a commuter herself.
Barry Cohen is another Marine Home Center commuter who has been making the flight over the Sound twice a day for almost twenty years. Cohen installs cabinets and countertops for the company, and when he started in 1993, he was the only one on the plane. After almost two decades, his morning routine is pretty streamlined. His alarm rings at 5:25. He makes coffee, his wife packs his lunch, and after a quick shower, he’s out the door. The drive from his house in Mashpee, MA to the Hyannis airport takes about twenty minutes, depending on traffic. He pulls into the company hangar at twenty past six, and his flight leaves ten minutes later. Including his flight, Cohen travels two hours every day — that’s twenty days of travel every year. “There’s definitely days when the weather’s awful and the plane’s bouncing all over the place — you question why you do it,” he says. But that’s only around three or four days a year, much better than driving to the city. “Commuting to Boston, I was scared for my life once a week in traffic.”
Even the Town of Nantucket sources much of their talent from the mainland. Fire chief Mark McDougal says firefighters have been commuting for years. “My preference is to have every firefighter living on the island,” the chief says, “but today, I have to be realistic. It’s something I keep an eye on.” Some firefighters even rent rooms as places to crash between their twenty-four hour shifts.
Another lifesaving institution, the Nantucket Cottage Hospital, contracts around thirty-one visiting specialists and physicians from off island. These physicians travel from various hospitals on the mainland, including Cape Cod Hospital, Mass General, and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and specialize in everything from allergies and dermatology to oncology and neurology. In total, these commuting physicians provide eighteen specialties to the Nantucket community. The hospital also employs three nurses that make the commute daily.
There is no single commuter, no single story, and no way to say what drives each worker to include Nantucket in the puzzle of their lives. Whatever the reason — money, security, community, the beauty of flying into Nantucket, or cruising across the Sound — there’s something about the island that keeps people coming back. And while this commuting workforce might arrive under the cover of dawn and leave under the shroud of night, they are an integral part of what keeps the island ticking.