Thursday, July 19, 2018

In the Ozarks, a town offers class on ‘Hispanics 101’

BRANSON, Mo. - In a ballroom with antlers on the wall and hoof prints on the carpet, diversity coach Miguel Joey Aviles asked whether anyone knew how to merengue.

"Lord have mercy," he said, counting hands. "Only two?"

This is "Hispanics 101," a class meant to teach employers in the Ozarks resort town of 11,400 how to lure workers from Puerto Rico and persuade them to stay.

The economy depends on it. As tourism season kicks off this month, the remote getaway known for dinner theaters, country music concerts and a museum of dinosaur replicas has 2,050 vacancies - and a lack of locals applying.

So, like other areas with tight labor markets, Branson finds itself getting creative to fill jobs - in this case by recruiting people from a part of the United States with much higher unemployment.

Read More: Exodus from Puerto Rico grows as island struggles to rebound from Hurricane Maria

But the plan to bring 1,000 workers from the island to overwhelmingly white, conservative Branson over the next three years has sparked unease, with critics saying that the newcomers will steal work from residents or drag down wages or bump up crime.

Inside the mountain lodge with Aviles, however, managers who say they’re desperate for employees stood up and tried to move their hips. They came from hotels, hospitals, hardware stores and banks, paying $50 each for the workshop.

"It’s very, very difficult to find talented people in this labor market," said Lynn Brown, regional human resources manager at Bluegreen Vacations. Few responded to the 20 vacancies he had posted online.

It’s another challenge to get workers to stay. Aviles advises bosses to check in often, ask about their mothers and request that grocery stores in the area sell plantains and Goya coconut water.

"It’s not enough to invite them to the party," Aviles said, twisting his body to the beat. "Bring them to the dance floor."

Branson boasts hiking, cave tours and 47 music venues, including Dolly Parton’s horse show, which a Slate reviewer recently described as "the Lost Cause of the Confederacy meets Cirque du Soleil."

The town logged a record 9 million visits from tourists in 2017. The local chamber of commerce expects an even bigger rush this year, thanks to rising wages nationwide.

Branson’s workforce development team is partnering with local businesses, including food suppliers, to accommodate the new hires. But officials acknowledge that some in the area, which is 92.4 percent white, are clinging to the past. Confederate flags adorn shop windows. A billboard outside town advertises "White Pride Radio."

"We get nasty comments all the time," said Heather Hardinger, programs director at the Taney County Partnership, which is working with the chamber on what it calls the "talent attraction" plan.

Companies across the country are competing for workers from Puerto Rico, which has the highest jobless rate in the United States. (Last year’s average was 10.8 percent.)

Firms in Maine, Wisconsin and Indiana have sought employees there, with some offering housing as a sweetener. One medical device maker in tiny Warsaw, Indiana, has provided its hires with cars.

Branson employers seek a variety of hires, from housekeepers to receptionists to senior managers in the tourism and hospitality industries, with pay ranging from $12 to $20 an hour, as well as hospital nurses whose salaries start at $54,000.

If Puerto Ricans face hostility in the town, Hardinger worries they will decamp for somewhere else - and the town will be stuck without the workers it needs to grow.

"The question we keep asking ourselves is: What can we do to set the community apart and make them feel at home here?" she said.

Branson has long sought temporary foreign workers to support its tourism industry and faced a crisis last summer when the Trump administration curbed the number of H-2B visas, cutting off a supply of seasonal employees from Belize.

Local businesses requested 475 H-2B visas for workers in 2017 but received about 70, a town spokeswoman said.

"That created an immediate shortage in the workforce," said Jeff Seifried, president of Branson’s chamber of commerce. "It sent everyone scrambling."

Uncertainty around the H-2B visa program has pushed Branson to start building a new - and permanent - talent pool, Seifried said. The town, he said, needs a workforce that decisions in Washington can’t shrink.

"Our market can’t grow without it," Seifried said.

The town’s workforce development team got to brainstorming, and it struck them: Puerto Rico is part of the United States - and the island’s jobless rate is typically much higher than Branson’s.

Perhaps they could make a deal: quality jobs and a warm welcome in exchange for hard workers who will consider staying.

Chamber officials visited Puerto Rico last April, August and again in February to recruit workers for positions in hotels and hospitals. The effort has brought 269 people from the island to Branson.

One of the first signs of resistance was a resident complaining he had read a story in the local newspaper last May about two men from Puerto Rico getting into a bar fight.

"Did you bring them here?" he asked, Hardinger said she recalled. "We don’t want this violence."

"What if they had been from Minnesota?" she recalls responding. "Would you want Minnesotans to stop coming here?"

Juanita Vazquez, a 35-year-old San Juan native who came here last April to manage the Lodge of the Ozarks, a lumber-lined resort with 800 rooms, said she encountered discrimination just after Hurricane Maria lashed her hometown last September.

She recalled a man eating scrambled eggs in the lobby, who looked up from his newspaper and said, "Why are we giving money to Puerto Rico? They’re so lazy."

Vazquez inhaled.

"I said to him, "Hello, sir. I am Juanita Vazquez. I am the general manager. And I am Puerto Rican."

That left him speechless.

Later, she said, he approached the front desk and apologized.

"I told my boss about it, and you know what?" she said, grinning. "He said, ‘Good job!’ "

That kind of support, she said, makes her want to bring her younger sister, who works as a nurse, to Branson. Vazquez is coaxing her here with tickets to the wax museum, where they can take selfies with a faux Michael Jackson.

Across town, a pair of store owners questioned the need for the recruitment push on the island.

"You have to wonder if this will drive wages down," said Beth Burgess, standing behind the wood counter at Cadwell’s Downtown Flea Market, which sells old books and raccoon pelts.

Two blocks up the street, at the Downtown Branson Visitor Center, Mike Peery, who has lived here more than a decade, lamented that locals can’t seem to fill the town’s openings. He doesn’t blame outsiders, though.

"So many people around here don’t want to work," Peery said. "They have drug problems, tattoo problems, show-up-to-work problems."

Karen Best, the mayor of Branson, has heard these complaints. She has assured residents that the recruits are Americans just like them - and vital to their town’s future.

"I would love to give all of our jobs to folks in the mainland U.S.," she said. "But we have more openings than we have folks to fill those jobs. And if those jobs aren’t filled, our tourism season doesn’t happen."

Celeste Cramer, director of recruitment and retention at CoxHealth, one of the region’s largest employers, said the hospital system recently hired 13 nurses from Puerto Rico and aims to "humanize" the recruits with Facebook posts. ("Ernesto Bravo Diaz originally wanted to be a doctor, but ultimately became a nurse because of the direct care they get to provide patients," one mini-profile reads.)

"There has been some miseducation," Cramer said. When the company hired outsiders in the past, she said, some residents "thought we’d be hiring people at a cheaper rate, and that is not true."

Back at Big Cedar Lodge, Aviles, who grew up in San Sebastián, Puerto Rico, ended his four-hour session of "Hispanics 101" by urging Branson employers to stay champions of Puerto Rican workers long after their first day on the job.

"The worst thing I’ve seen is halfhearted efforts," Aviles told the room. "If we go halfway, it never works out."

According to his polling, Hispanics, like any people, have a wide variety of interests and views - but they tend to prioritize what folks in Branson also cherish: "faith, family, education and self-improvement," he said.

Andrea Martinez-Marstall, a manager at nearby country club, nodded along and watched the faces around her.

"You see people’s eyes light up for the first time," said the California native with Mexican roots. "People aren’t just listening. They’re embracing. Accepting."

She thought of co-workers in her past, who had joked about Mexicans and then clarified: Oh, you’re not like that.

"I have been here for 19 years and have felt invisible for a long time," she told Aviles after his presentation, shaking his hand. "The Ozarks needs this greatly."

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