OMAHA, Neb. — A new initiative is starting to form in Nebraska addressing an issue impacting all industries and individuals: the labor shortage.
It’s easy to see a “Help Wanted“ sign in any Nebraska town or city, and that's why some organizations are working together to build a state-wide coalition and to change the narrative so people understand immigrants could be central to addressing the labor shortage problems in the state.
“There is a lack of staff, and more jobs available all over Nebraska than there are people to fill them," said Nebraska Hispanic Chamber President Yesenia Peck.
“The data behind the [Nebraska] chamber has provided around 80,000 open jobs, proof that this is an important issue that we have to begin organizing around now or it's only going to get worse," said Sarah Keeney, the lead organizer at Omaha Together One Community (OTOC).
The conversations to start the coalition started back in March with the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce, the Lincoln and Omaha chambers of commerce and OTOC.
The new coalition visualizes that immigration reform can be a solution to Nebraska’s labor shortage. First United Methodist Church member and immigration and refugee committee member for OTOC, Denise Bowyer, said they see this new coalition aligning with the national and bipartisan 'Alliance for a New Immigration Consensus,' a group which recently wrote a letter to Congress expressing the current huge need for immigration reform.
“We want to provide permanent solutions for people who are here legally at this point under work authorization to protect their status so they don’t always have to worry about losing their job," Bowyer said.
As all industries are being impacted by the labor shortage, the coalition hopes to reach all Nebraska stakeholders. The coalition recently had their first meeting at the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce, where around 60 people from different types of industries and organizations attended.
“When you think about faith, philanthropy, agriculture, building and construction industries, advocacy groups, organized labor, trade associations, service providers, the chambers, businesses themselves, all coming together... it's really about building power," Bowyer added.
She said the group now has an opportunity to build a broad-based coalition.
" We could reach all stakeholders," Bowyer said. "This would be outside of our group, but we all know groups and industries that this issue impacts in a really high way."
According to OTOC, the state has around 2,000 Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients, and according to the state's immigration portal, more than 5,000 residents are DACA eligible, with many participants in jeopardy to leave the country.
OTOC said the coalition could lobby Nebraska congressional delegates for federal changes. The still-forming coalition wants to build a common agenda and a shared narrative to impact public policy.
“To build relationships with our elected delegates, not only federal but state levels as well, because there are state and federal issues being addressed," Bowyer said.
Bowyer said the COVID-19 pandemic showed even more systemic problems of this workforce issue. She said the pandemic also made many people realize even more the importance of refugees and immigrants in Nebraska's economy.
"The pandemic did not help," Peck said. "Many people were part-time employees and looked at the jobs as not worth it because of the health risk."
Peck said at the end of the day, short staffing affects everyone. With the labor shortage, companies have to pay more for workers available.
“This is not good," Peck said. "This raises the price that we all have to pay for the different products and services."
Bowyer said the coalition will have more gatherings in central and western Nebraska so the coalition has more input from people across the state. There are no dates scheduled yet, but OTOC recognizes that the upcoming elections are a key opportunity to help build relationships with candidates.
"We certainly don't have an agenda laid out for them to sign onto, but we know this would be an opportunity to tell them, 'This is an issue we are organizing around, that we care about, we would like to build a relationship with you and your office, if you are elected,'" Keeney said.
OTOC doesn’t know yet how large this coalition will be.
"The issue of labor and immigration is not new," Peck said. "We need diverse voices, to educate and to make the changes that we need."