Hard-working immigrants can help Nebraska with our labor shortage

October 13, 2023 3:00 am

Companies filled 209,000 jobs in June, according to the latest jobs report from the U.S. Department of Labor. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

I love representing the hospitality industry here in Nebraska, the state where my great-grandfather arrived from Denmark years ago. Nebraska has much to offer — from the joys of tanking down its rivers to the stunning view from atop Scotts Bluff National Monument.

I’m so proud of this state. But I’m also worried because we have a dire labor shortage that has impacted our industry among many, from agriculture to retail, from construction to health care. This crisis requires the White House to take emergency action.

I see restaurants cutting back to a few days a week because they are short-staffed, with some of them, like Lincoln’s longtime beloved Grand Italian Buffet, flat-out closing. Members of my trade group tell me they’re exhausted doing all the work because they can’t find enough employees. Not to mention hotels with as few as four housekeepers, even when they are slammed with events or conventions that fill them to capacity. Pay and benefits can’t attract non-existent workers.

The situation is dire. Recently, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranked us “most severe” regarding labor shortage — with only 42 workers available for every 100 open jobs. That’s why I urge elected officials and other business leaders in the state to join a growing, bipartisan chorus calling for the Biden administration to authorize states to issue work permits to as many longtime and newcomer undocumented immigrants as needed to fill those labor holes.

This is something a presidential administration has the authority to do if it would result in a significant public benefit to the U.S., and it surely would. Allowing Nebraska and other states to opt into a lawful, orderly and efficient temporary program to meet workforce needs in critical industries would be a huge boon for employers, immigrant workers and American consumers alike.

So why not expand such a mechanism? Governors and employers from both parties have long advocated for immigration reforms that provide safe, legal and efficient pathways to lawful status while maintaining national security at our borders to help our economy. This would do just that — removing the incentive for irregular border crossings if immigrants can apply for temporary permits in states with labor shortages. Immigrants who have been in the U.S. for years also should be considered for these permits.

It could not happen at a better time. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than half of the states remain above the national rate for job openings of 5.8%. Agriculture, America’s first industry, is particularly hard hit — the U.S. is on track to buy and import more food than we produce here at home due to the lack of workers, resulting in historically high prices consumers pay at grocery stores and food insecurity due to a greater reliance on imported products.

“These jobs should go to real Americans,” you might say. Well, not enough want them. Employers in my sector have bent over backwards to hire native Nebraskans, offering wages well above the legal minimum, to no avail. Meanwhile, we have hard-working immigrants who may be undocumented but still pay into a U.S. tax system whose benefits they aren’t even allowed to access. They’re often our longtime neighbors, raising their kids alongside ours, and all they want is a fair shot to work hard. It’s not smart or right to deny them that. Only the Human Beings — the People — the Native Americans are true native Nebraskans. The rest of us hail from immigrants. That’s the great American tradition.

We’ve seen the horrors of meatpacking plants in our state shut down due to Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids because, out of desperation, they were employing undocumented immigrants. Such raids have hobbled employers and, at times, torn immigrant parents from their children. It doesn’t have to be that way. A federally authorized work-permit program would remove the shameful cloak of illegality from bosses and workers alike, allowing for a system for all that’s legal, fair and direly needed.

Our vibrant state is going to hit the wall on growth very soon unless we open up new channels of labor. That’s why I’m urging our Nebraska elected officials to urge the White House to allow states to issue immigrants work permits. It’s aligned with the spirit of Nebraskan friendliness and American opportunity. It’s also likely the only choice left if we don’t want more shuttered restaurants, failing hotels, unpicked crops, unbuilt homes, and unattended seniors and patients in the future.

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Zoe Olson
Zoe Olson

Zoe Olson is the executive director of the Nebraska Hospitality Association (NeHA) and its educational arm, the Hospitality Educational Foundation (HEF). A UNL graduate with a degree in journalism and a focus in advertising, Zoe has more than 30 years of organizational management, marketing and public relations experience. She has initiated new ventures throughout her career, from successful fundraising events to programs designed to engage clients and increase membership. Prior to coming to the NeHA, Zoe served as the executive director of Blue Rivers Area on Aging, director of public relations and marketing for Aging Partners and executive director of the Nebraska Wheat Growers Association.