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New York Needs Workers. They’re Waiting On the Sidelines

On a recent morning on a sleepy street in Jackson Heights, Queens, more than 20 men and women swarmed a dark blue van in hopes of getting some work for the day. Four managed to get in.
The would-be workers, most of whom were men in their 20s and 30s, are part of a growing pool of migrants that’s flooding New York City, where thousands of asylum seekers arrive each week. Desperate for work but bound by US immigration law from doing so in any legal or stable fashion, they’re often relegated to competing with other undocumented workers for the odd day job, or enterprising by selling fruit or candy on the street or subway.
To major employers like restaurateur Danny Meyer, it’s a stunning inefficiency. More than half a year after his trattoria Maialino returned from its pandemic closure, Meyer still can’t find authorized workers that will allow him to reopen for weekday lunch. His struggle to staff his New York City eateries comes as the city and its surrounding areas have seen some 90,000 people leave the labor force since the pandemic. The manufacturing and leisure and hospitality sectors have been especially hard-hit.

“From an economic standpoint, it just hit me like such an obvious thing,” said Meyer, executive chairman of Union Square Hospitality Group and founder of Shake Shack Inc., who joined a call from Mayor Eric Adams and New York Governor Kathy Hochul earlier this year urging the federal government to expedite work permits for migrants seeking asylum. “It’s not just restaurants. It goes all the way up the supply chain, to farmers and fishers, who also need talent right now.”

New York officials say more than 87,000 people have entered the five boroughs since spring of last year, and more than 53,000 are in the city’s care, straining its finances. The city doesn’t specify how many of those migrants have actually applied for asylum — which requires showing real or feared persecution back home — but those who have must wait at least six months after filing their paperwork before starting to work. Otherwise, they risk jeopardizing their cases and chances of staying in the US.

Between that, and a limited pool of employers willing to hire those without authorization, the new arrivals are filling just a fraction of the city’s labor shortage. There were 1.2 jobs available for every unemployed person in New York state in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, said the restaurant industry could absorb “thousands” of jobs. Kerry Brodie, who founded Emma’s Torch to provide free culinary training to refugees, said her organization is getting “so many inquiries from restaurants, from catering businesses, from bakeries, looking for talent.”

Though many sectors have long hired workers under the table — smaller restaurants and shops, construction sites or cleaning services — larger, more corporate employers tend to comply with federal law in requiring work authorization. Those in violation can be audited, raided, fined or even face criminal punishment, said Nicole Dillard, an attorney who focuses on immigration and labor law.

Multiple efforts in Washington over the years have failed to expedite the work authorization process for asylum seekers. Ongoing short-staffing across key American industries means there might be an opening for change, said Representative Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat. In March, she introduced a bill that proposed reducing the waiting period to 30 days. There’s a similar piece of legislation in the Senate.

“That level of awareness is helping people to understand the magnitude of the problem and, frankly, how ridiculous it is that we prevent people from going to work in a time when we have a worker shortage,” Pingree said in an interview.

The bulk of the asylum seekers in the city’s care arrived this year, and the waiting period doesn’t account for the time it takes to find an attorney who can prepare their case. In an attempt to get a head start, some migrants file their applications without the help of an attorney, which can cause further delays because of errors in their paperwork, according to Andrew Heinrich, an immigration lawyer and founder of Project Rousseau, a nonprofit that works with migrant youths and families.

The entire process “makes folks feel like they’re in purgatory,” he said.

Mayor Adams on Wednesday described the system as a “bottleneck” and said that federal lawmakers should be prioritizing migrants’ right to work and the ability to determine whether or not they can stay. “Nothing is more anti-American than coming to this country and you don’t have the right to do a job,” he told Fox5. “These asylum seekers want to work.”

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