Seasonal industries across the country are facing labor shortages this summer because the federal government cut the number of visas it issues to temporary migrant workers. To compensate, cities like Branson, Missouri, known as the "Las Vegas of the Midwest,” are recruiting Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, to leave behind an island mired in economic crisis. Hari Sreenivasan reports.
A year ago, Brenda Alicea was unemployed and having a tough time finding work in her town of San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico. In the midst of the largest financial crisis in the island's history, job prospects dimmed by the day on the U.S. territory.
Then her brother-in-law told her there were plenty of jobs here in Branson Missouri. Located in the Ozarks, it's the self-proclaimed "Las Vegas of the Midwest". The city of about 11,000 residents sees up to 9 million tourists every season. But it also faces a labor shortage, with around 2,000 job vacancies, mostly in hospitality.
EXPRESS EMPLOYMENT PROFESSIONALS RECRUITMENT VIDEO:
"One of the challenges we have in Branson is that we have lots of jobs because we are a Hospitality town."
Starting in early 2017, even before Hurricane Maria, Branson's major employers and its chamber of commerce launched an island-wide recruitment campaign in Puerto Rico, hoping to woo seasonal workers.
It's very peaceful. You have a lot of nature and that's what we were looking for, at least what I'm looking for.
She moved to Branson last September and worked as a housekeeper before eventually getting a job as a ticket agent at the Branson airport. Her husband found temporary construction work.
I said, 'If the schools are good, I will go there.' Because I wanted my son to graduate.
They brought their 14-year-old son Kelier, who had been diagnosed with a learning disability in Puerto Rico.
He is now doing better. All he does is say, "You know what? I love this school. I wanna keep on studying." And that's what I want.
She left her then 17-year-old daughter with a relative to finish her senior year of high school.
I'm not saying that everything is perfect, but they have been treating me so nice. You go to a Walmart store and they just, "Hi, how are you? How are you doing?" We don't know them. We're like, wow!
Three days after Brenda got to Branson, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, making it even harder for the already cash-strapped government to provide basic services like electricity and water. The unemployment rate there is almost 10%, more than double the national average.
They still need help. Also, the streets, there's a lot of potholes, like, they're bigger than ever.
So the infrastructure is still suffering?
Yes. It's devastated.
Some 400 Puerto Ricans like Brenda have come to work in Branson since the city began its mass recruitment effort.
Towns like Branson are recruiting from Puerto Rico in part because temporary worker visas, the H2B and the J-1, became much harder to get over the past two years. And people from Puerto Rico are American citizens.
Uncertainty is never a great business plan. And that's what we found with the visa programs.
Jeff Seifried is President of the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.
A number of applications were denied. And so we went into emergency mode on trying to figure out how we were going to fill– the more than 2,000 vacancies– open positions in the marketplace.
He says that the U.S. Guest worker program has always been used as a political football. But things got especially difficult last year after congress failed to extend a key exemption for returning guest workers. The exemption previously allowed those workers to come from abroad season after season and they did not count toward the annual cap of 66,000 h2b visas available.
There's been a lot of discussion about immigration, obviously, across the country. But I think what's happened is the temporary workforce programs have gotten mixed up in this immigration discussion, and frankly, inappropriately so.
While Seifried and his team continue to lobby the federal government for temporary workforce visa reform, recruiting workers from Puerto Rico is a top priority. Employers from Branson are also branching out to Florida, where state researchers project more than 50,000 Puerto Ricans will permanently settle as a result of the hurricane.
Our main concern in Branson is to make sure that anyone working here temporarily is going to have a good experience. Whether that's doing cultural immersion classes or Spanish classes educating the business community is part of this whole landscape.
To attract new workers, many employers offer round-trip plane tickets, some moving expenses, and housing assistance.
Food was provided. Airplane ticket to get over here was provided. We came over here with maybe 200 bucks in our pocket. And now we got everything.
Last May, Ana Rey and her husband, Jose Ramirez, were recruited by the staffing agency, Express Employment Professionals, and moved to Branson with their two children. Puerto Rico's education department shut down their daughter's school in the town of Carolina because of the island's financial crisis.
We looked up the education here in Branson, and it sounded excellent.
It looked like a new place, a new beginning. They were showing us pictures about the area and we loved it. I mean, it's not crowded. It's not city-like. So we thought about our kids, our future, and we took it.
Ana works as a housekeeper at a local resort, where Jose also works as a security guard.
You know, every two weeks we see somebody new from Puerto Rico. "Hey, I'm from this part of the island. I'm from this other part of the island. How long you been here? One week. I'm scared. I don't know what to do. Hey, man, we been here for a year and a half. And it's a transition, but you're gonna love it."
He makes 11 dollars an hour and Ana makes just over 12. They say with a lower cost of living in Branson, their money goes further here than it did back home.
They can make– upwards of $12, $13, $14, $15 an hour and then take that money and go home when they're ready.
There are going to be people who push back and say, 'Listen, this is a way for businesses to get away with paying people less– you're actually decreasing the floor here– you're keeping wages suppressed by bringing in labor from outside the– the region.'
You know I challenge back on that that topic because what we hear from the business community is we would gladly pay the going rate and for our market, those are those are good wages. And so to say that we don't want to hire locals or we don't want to invest in locals is just not true. The reality is, we can't find an available labor pool locally to meet the need.
Branson, Missouri isn't the only place recruiting workers from Puerto Rico because of labor shortages. Firms in Maine, South Carolina and Massachusetts have done so as well. Several offer housing, and one medical device maker in Warsaw, Indiana, even provided their new hires with cars.
Coxhealth Medical Center, the Branson area's largest healthcare system, just hired 20 new nurses from Puerto Rico due to a nursing shortage. In addition to providing housing assistance and some moving expenses, the hospital will assign each new hire with a mentor. William Mahoney is the Branson hospital's president.
When you first heard about the idea to recruit from Puerto Rico, what did you think?
I thought it was a great idea. And think about this, you can come here and make over $40,000 a year, up to $100,000 a year. We're helping pay for– certifications they can gain. And the more certifications you gain, the more pay that you can earn. If we take care of our people well, they take care of our patients well.
And jobs here at the hospital provide the opportunity for year round work.
You're not like a hotel. You need full-time, 12-months-a-year coverage.
We want you to move here. Not seasonally, we want your family to be here. And I think how we work with the first group that works here, that's our best selling point is to tell their friends and neighbors who they have relationships with, "Hey, this is a great place."
But so far, most of the 400 Puerto Rican workers have come to work temporarily in hospitality, like 33-year-old hector Ochoa. He came to Branson last October to work as a travel consultant at a resort.
Mostly I wanted to learn how big businesses like this work, how the marketing side to it works, how the selling process of it works. I came here with that mindset.
Are you going to try to stay?
I'm going to try to stay as long as I can and as I see fit to, you know, return to Puerto Rico. I plan to return to Puerto Rico.
Yeah, of course. I do. For me, it was more like– leaving for a while and concentrating on what I want to do and, you know, kind of return with, like, a good base under my feet, you know?
Hector makes 11 dollars an hour. Every week he pays 75 dollars back to his employer for a shared room in this trailer that houses 7 guest workers.
So is this working out for you financially?
I wouldn't say it's working. It's not where I want to be financially. So the finances right now, I'm kind of pushing them to the side, even though I'm making money.
As for Brenda Alicea, though she found permanent work and makes 10.50 an hour, she says it's been tough to make ends meet. Her husband's temporary construction work in Branson was inconsistent, and he moved to Orlando, Florida to try his luck there. Brenda believes she'll likely follow, reluctantly, because her son has been thriving at his new school just outside of Branson.
Now he's not in the special education program. He's doing well. I've done it all for him.
Yeah. Worth it?
Yes, sir. Definitely.
Unlike Brenda and hector, Jose and Ana plan to make a life here in Branson, knowing their family and friends are still back in Puerto Rico.
It was really hard for me to leave them behind. Every time I talk to them it hurts. It saddens me. But I tell them, if you're ready and you want to come, just let me know.
It worked out for us. 100%
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Hari Sreenivasan joined the PBS NewsHour in 2009. He is the Anchor of PBS NewsHour Weekend and a Senior Correspondent for the nightly program.
Ivette Feliciano shoots, produces and reports on camera for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Before starting with NewsHour in 2013, she worked as a one-person-band correspondent for the News 12 Networks, where she won a New York Press Club Award for her coverage of Super Storm Sandy, which ravaged the East Coast in 2012. Prior to that, Ivette was the Associate Producer of Latin American news for Worldfocus, a nationally televised, daily international news show seen on Public Television. While at Worldfocus, Ivette served as the show’s Field Producer and Reporter for Latin America, covering special reports on the Mexican drug war as well as a 5-part series out of Bolivia, which included an interview with President Evo Morales. In 2010, she co-produced a documentary series on New York’s baseball history that aired on Channel Thirteen. Ivette holds a Master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she specialized in broadcast journalism.
Zachary Green began working in online and broadcast news in 2009. Since then he has produced stories all over the U.S. and overseas in Ireland and Haiti. In his time at NewsHour, he has reported on a wide variety of topics, including climate change, immigration, voting rights, and the arts. He also produced a series on guaranteed income programs in the U.S. and won a 2015 National Headliner Award in business and consumer reporting for his report on digital estate planning. Prior to joining Newshour, Zachary was an Associate Producer for Need to Know on PBS, during which he assisted in producing stories on gun violence and healthcare, among others. He also provided narration for the award-winning online documentary series, “Retro Report”.
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