EDITOR’S NOTE: It's called "The Great Resignation," a seismic upheaval in the workforce that is reshaping today's economy. This week, Forum Communication Co. reporters will look at The Great Resignation's profound effects on workers and businesses across the region in our multi-part series, "Help Wanted."
Since the start of the pandemic, Laxmi Kharel has been in the middle of it all. As a certified nursing assistant at Altru Health System in Grand Forks, she’s been a front-line worker throughout the spread of the pandemic and — for a few days — worked in the COVID unit itself, dressed in a mask and layers of protective gear.
But when Kharel scrubs out and heads home, the Bhutanese immigrant has been hit with the unique challenges that face new Americans like her. She recalls juggling her family and her job against waiting on hold with unemployment officials, trying to get benefits for her mother-in-law, a hotel worker who doesn’t speak English. She recalls helping fellow new Americans with applications for food stamps or a green card or citizenship — something that, as COVID advanced, had to stop.
“I work on the front line, so I don't want them to get exposed if I get it,” she said. “And I don’t have time to go through the phone and have them write (their application information) down, because they don’t know how to write it down.”
Kharel’s experience illuminates what many new Americans faced through the depths of COVID’s spread. They made their way through the pandemic and hurdled all the same obstacles as their neighbors, but often with one hand tied by cultural divides or language barriers or the like.
But there’s change happening in 2021, as the economy slowly — cross your fingers — recovers from the worst of COVID. Businesses across Minnesota and North Dakota are struggling to find help as the “Great Resignation,” as it’s begun to be called, sweeps across the country.
But it’s not clear how much that will help new Americans.
Cynthia Shabb is the executive director of Global Friends Coalition, a new American resettlement and resource group based in Grand Forks. She said it’s likely that many hourly workers have seen modest wage hikes — but that precarity, she said, is still there, with many new Americans still in hourly, working-class jobs that still don’t have significant benefits.
Shabb shared the example of a new American in Grand Forks, now juggling a job with two children at home. Despite all the gains workers have made this year, her lack of child-care services means she’ll struggle to balance her work hours and her kids during the holidays.
“You hear all the time on the news about people working from home,” Shabb said, invoking the most famous new benefit that white-collar workers have won during the pandemic. “Think about the people who have the liberty of working from home. They’re not the fast food workers. They’re not the factory workers.”
And from the start of the pandemic, new Americans have often faced more economic precarity than the average native-born American. Pre-COVID federal data shows that, in 2019, about 15.4% of foreign-born Minnesotans were living in poverty, compared to 8.4% of those born in the U.S.
In North Dakota, the divide was even starker: 20.3% of foreign-born people were in poverty, versus just 10.2% of those born in the U.S.
Other federal statistics show that foreign-born workers have since borne the brunt of the pandemic’s workplace setbacks. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the foreign-born civilian labor force only made up about 17% of the national workforce in 2019 and 2020 — but accounted for nearly 40% of the workforce shrinkage in 2020.
“The economic downturn resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately affected the foreign-born labor force,” a May BLS report states.
Pre-COVID federal data shows that, in 2019, about 15.4% of foreign-born Minnesotans were living in poverty, compared to 8.4% of those born in the U.S. In North Dakota, 20.3% of foreign-born people were in poverty, versus just 10.2% of those born in the U.S.
Today’s high demand for labor is also rooted partly in the lack of immigrants who never arrived. University of North Dakota economist David Flynn points to immigration restrictions from Donald Trump’s presidency, which put downward pressure on importing new foreign labor.
“There were a lot of foreign workers,” Flynn said, both in skilled and unskilled fields, “who are not here, and would have been otherwise. And that obviously exacerbates the labor situation.”
As the economy rebounds, it’s hard to be precise about what, exactly, is happening now. Many data collection processes were interrupted by the pandemic; Abigail Wozniak, a senior research economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, says many other government statistics rely on sample sizes too small to extrapolate state-by-state — though those national statistics likely hold true in the upper Midwest.
But Wozniak did point out an important trend: some foreign-born workers are seeing their employment levels rebound faster than the population as a whole. In the second half of 2021, employment levels for foreign-born white and Asian workers matched the same period in 2019, while employment levels for the overall population still lagged two points, down from 61% in late 2019 to 59% now.
- RELATED: Read more stories in our series, Help Wanted
Black and Hispanic foreign-born workers, she said, still haven’t fully recovered — but they’ve still run ahead of the full American workforce.
“So I do think this view of, ‘Immigrant workers are filling in, where native-born workers are taking longer to return’ — I think we’re seeing that across the board for immigrants of all race and ethnic categories,” Wozniak said.
Jane Graupman is the executive director of the International Institute of Minnesota, which helps new Americans with language learning, job training and placement. She said she’s seen nursing assistants placed at $17 an hour — a marked increase from before the pandemic. There’s no trouble finding new Americans jobs right now, she said.
“I’ll tell you also, as an employer in the nonprofit world, our wages have gone up too,” she said. “You don’t get as many applicants. If somebody doesn’t accept a job, you don’t have two people you can replace them with.”
Returning to normal?
For Kharel, it looks like things are getting back to normal. Gone are the depths of the pandemic, when so much of the country was laid off, though Kharel points out that some workplaces have closed down.
But even as the country gets back to work, the pandemic has left big changes in Grand Forks’ new American communities. Kharel said that many — notably her husband’s elderly grandparents — have moved away to Pennsylvania or Ohio, seeking care in their native languages in those states’ burgeoning immigrant communities. And as they leave, they tempt relatives left behind to follow.
Kharel wants to help keep the community together. Her husband runs an international grocery store in the heart of Grand Forks. What would her family do without its customers? What would her community do without each other?
So she’s working with her husband to start a home care service of her own — helping patients with taking medicine, bathing, cleaning or even light house work. She’s submitted paperwork to the state of North Dakota to start, she said, and she’s hopeful for the future.
“We really need those (services) to help our people stay in the state here,” Kharel said. “(I)t will be easier for our people — we speak the same language — for them to tell us what is going on, what they need, what kind of care they need.”
Durga Panda, the head of pediatrics at Altru, has worked with Kharel to help start the service.
“The pandemic just brought everything into the fore,” he said of new Americans’ struggles. “But I take it as an opportunity. Every problem can be, and should be taken as an opportunity. We can make things better — and if we have the opportunity to do it, why not?”