Can’t Find/Need Seasonal Workers? Hire Recent Newcomers

By Lyn Dean

Julie Echter

Julie Echter, Vice President at Echter’s Nursery & Garden Center, Arvada, reiterates what many green industry businesses have been experiencing for several years – the challenge of finding people to work hands-on, full-time, jobs. The difficulty finding and hiring employees – made worse during the COVID pandemic – has not improved.

“Worker expectations have changed,” says Echter. “At Echter’s Nursery, it used to be that all our employees were full-time. Now almost all are part-time, meaning we have to hire twice as many. This makes scheduling and training tricky.” She also recognizes that attracting employees to her business – and the industry, in general – is difficult because these businesses simply can’t offer the work-at-home options and perks that many people expect in today’s job market.

Look around. What do you see?

Simply looking around the Denver Metropolitan area, it’s difficult not see the number of newcomers who have somehow made their way to the area – an estimated 40,000 from South and Central America. And most are looking for work. No matter what your perspective, it’s a humanitarian conundrum that is part of a larger humanitarian crisis.

“It is a very heated topic, and many people have strong opinions on the issue. Some are very upset by the arrival of newcomers, while some can see some practical advantages to having fresh, and willing workers,” says Echter. “Since I live nearby one of the hotels that was turned into a shelter, I saw families being shuttled in and out, many left on the streets. It was really getting to me, and I wanted to find a way to help. What I knew was, ‘these people want to work!’

For Echter, there was an obvious connection between helping these people work and the opportunity they offer for her business and other businesses, both within and outside her industry. “I had been watching the situation for many months and in January 2024, I found a migrant support group nearby. I joined and began learning about the complexity of the issues and the vast networks of people coming together to help create solutions.”

Learning curve

Originally, Echter thought the $410 application fee was the main obstacle preventing newcomers from getting a work permit. However, she soon learned that navigating the immigration system was more complicated than she ever imagined, and the application fee was the least of her worries. “The government makes it incredibly difficult for individuals to seek asylum in the U.S., especially if they are from a country plagued with poverty”, she explains. “Asylum seekers from Venezuela or other South or Central American countries are not treated the same as asylum seekers from a country like Ukraine.”

Echter says there are three classification groups for migrants coming from South/Central America, each group processed differently through the U.S. system. The first and most fortunate group of people are those who arrived prior to 8/1/23. They were granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS). People in this group were immediately able to apply for a work permit with all fees waived. The second group is composed of individuals who entered on “parole” through the CBP One app (an immigration application created by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency). This group is also immediately eligible to apply for a work permit but must submit a fee waiver request or pay the $410 application fee. The final group is composed of those who entered after 8/1/23 without “parole status.” This group must apply for asylum and wait 150 days before individuals are eligible to apply for a work permit.

“Not only are asylum cases near impossible to win, but individuals will need a lawyer to represent their case, meaning they can expect legal fees ranging from $4,000 to $12,000,” Echter says. She adds that at some point, every newcomer will have to go through the asylum process but those without TPS or parole status will have to start this process before they can legally obtain work – and unfortunately, most newcomers do not have TPS or parole status.

“Essentially, the U.S. government is allowing hundreds of thousands of people to enter the country without any timely or realistic pathway to obtain work and support themselves.” Echter found this realization devastating but it fueled her desire to help.

Turning her focus to newcomers that had obtained work permits or that were eligible to apply, she began exploring ways to quickly get them employment. In February, she decided to use her own company as a “guinea pig” and advertise open positions to migrant communities, in addition to traditional recruiting channels. Echter’s Nursery & Garden Center was quickly able to hire a Venezuelan couple that entered through the CBP One app and had recently been granted work permits. “They are so grateful to have steady employment, and they work so hard,” says Echter. “I can’t imagine any business not wanting that!” Echter’s has since hired three more newcomers and is helping two others through the work permit process.

Spreading the word

“It was already mid-January when I really got the ball rolling on this project. I wanted to get the word out to others in the green industry about the potential of tapping into this new labor pool. I wasn’t sure how to best do this, but I knew that ProGreen was my best opportunity to reach employers,” Echter says.

In just a couple of weeks, with the help of Jean Larkins, she created a website  – The New Roots Project – for the purpose of connecting employers to migrants looking for work.

The site is meant for employers and provides information and resources to assist with hiring newcomers. Once registered, employers are given access to a searchable spreadsheet of potential hires. The spreadsheet pulls together information about newcomers, who provide basic contact details including skills, experience, work permit status, English language proficiency and more.

“Thankfully, I was able to get the website and spreadsheet running by the start of ProGreen and could hand out information to companies about the platform. About half the migrants listed in the spreadsheet currently have, or are in the process of getting, their work permits.” The website continues to be revised and updated, and as of March 1st, Echter says there are over 150 migrants registered with New Roots.

She encourages more businesses to sign up on the New Roots platform and for green industry associations to provide support by spreading the word to their members. Once registered, employers can search for prospective workers and reach out to them directly.

Understanding the facts

Importantly, Echter reminds us that these newcomers “did not ‘sneak in’ and are not illegal immigrants.” The U.S. government granted their entry, allowing them the opportunity to proceed through the asylum process. These newcomers can legally work once they complete the necessary paperwork and are issued work permits.

Nevertheless, when she started receiving hate messages, Echter found out firsthand that not all Denver area residents are on the same page regarding migrants, nor do they necessarily understand the situation. She understands the urgency and complications of the situation. “If we can’t figure out a way to get these newcomers employed quickly, then we are going to turn a group of people who are eager to work, into a group of people who are reliant on government aid. No one wants that!” Fortunately, the City of Denver, in conjunction with various nonprofits, has set up weekly “clinics” where eligible migrants can receive help filling out necessary applications, receive fee waivers, and complete biometrics on site to hasten processing of their work permits. Above all, helping the people and connecting them to employers is what’s important to Echter, and to others as well, she learned. She says Echter’s Nursery & Garden Cneter received “a flood of support” after her February interview with Colorado Public Radio (CPR). “I’m very excited about this project! Regardless of your political stance, these newcomers are here, and the City of Denver has made it clear that they are not going anywhere,” says Echter. “We can sit around and complain about what’s happening or we can come together to create realistic solutions. Welcoming hardworking and motivated individuals into our businesses and industry seems like an obvious win-win for everyone.”

New workers Mirelys and Jhonny