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Rutland Employers Challenge Those Who Say There Are No Jobs For Refugees

A view of a downtown.
Nina Keck
VPR file
Plans to bring Syrian refugees to Rutland are moving forward, despite uncertainty on the federal level. Opponents of resettlement have voiced concerns that the job market can't absorb newcomers, but many local employers say they'd welcome the applicants.

As Rutland prepares to welcome Syrian refugees to its community, some are continuing to voice concerns that there aren’t enough jobs for refugees in the city, or that local residents will lose work — but many local employers disagree.

Plans to bring Syrian refugees to Rutland beginning in January are moving forward, despite questions about how the Trump administration might change U.S. refugee policy.  

The lunch rush is over, but the kitchen at Roots, a popular restaurant in Rutland, is still busy, and amid the clang of pots and pans, owner Donald Billings says he could use more help.

Billings says he’s had a hard time filling entry-level jobs like dishwashers, catering crews, food prep and cleaners.

“What we’ve seen is people want jobs, but aren’t willing to actually work what is required for the task," he says.

He says he doesn’t offer benefits for entry-level jobs, but pays slightly more than the state minimum wage, which will increase to $10 an hour next month.  And he says he offers regular raises.

Two miles away, at Rutland’s Holiday Inn, manager Dave Dholakia says he currently has a half dozen entry-level positions open with limited benefits.

“My executive housekeeper just texted me ... We had one no-call, no-show, and [someone] just walked off without finishing her rooms," Dholakia says of his staff. “And for every one position, I have to hire three people, because of the turnover. Everyone wants a job, but no one wants to work.”

"For every one position, I have to hire three people because of the turnover. Everyone wants a job, but no one wants to work." - Dave Dholakia, Rutland Holiday Inn manager

Asked why he doesn’t pay more for those jobs, Dholakia says Vermont’s minimum wage already feels like a maximum wage for business owners.  

Judy Morton says nursing homes are almost always hiring. She is a regional executive director who heads two facilities in Rutland: Rutland Health and Rehab and Mountain View Center.

Morton says their entry-level jobs do come with benefits. And she says pay for licensed nursing assistants starts between $11 and $13 an hour. 

“I think if you talk to any nursing home in the state, there’s always, always openings," she says. "And that’s why we run our own training classes, to try to encourage people to want to be a nursing assistant or be a house keeper in nursing facility. So there’s many job openings.”

When it comes to hiring refugees, all three employers admit language barriers could be a problem for certain jobs. And Morton says cultural issues could arise as older nursing home residents may be less open to interacting with staff who look or dress differently.

But all say they’d welcome refugee applicants.

They’re motivated, says Donald Billings, and as an employer, that goes a long way.

“The few that I’ve had interactions with, they’re all in,” says Billings. “They’re in to work; they have survival mode.”

But $10 an hour, full-time, translates into just under $21,000 a year before taxes. So more than one person in a refugee family may have to work, or work multiple jobs. Billings points out that’s not unusual for any low-income family in Vermont.

"The few [refugees] that I've had interactions with, they're all in; they're in to work. They have survival mode." - Donald Billings, Roots The Restaurant owner

Each refugee will get a one-time payment of $925 to help them get settled.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median monthly rent in Rutland is $775 for a one- to two-bedroom unit. In this week’s newspaper, three-bedroom units were starting at $800.

Public housing is available, but the wait list can be up to three years, says Kevin Loso, executive director of the Rutland Housing Authority. And despite rumors to the contrary, Loso says refugees will not be put at the top of the list.

In preparation for the refugees' arrival, officials with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program have found office space in the Howe Center in Rutland and are recruiting for three full-time staff.

Amila Merdzanovic, executive director of the resettlement program, believes her staff will be able to help refugees coming to Rutland find apartments and jobs quickly.

“That first job may be an entry-level job and it may be difficult in the beginning,” admits Merdzanovic. “But we’ve done this before, and people have thrived and then moved on, and we’re certainly expecting the same from the Syrian population.”

She adds: “What I’m hearing from my colleagues from around the country is that they’re very eager and they want to go to work.”

"At the eight-month point, 88 percent of all employable adults [of refugees in Chittenden County] were considered economically self-sufficient ... They are not eligible for public assistance." - Amila Merdzanovic, Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program director

Opponents aren’t convinced, and many worry the newcomers will end up on welfare. The state doesn’t track how many refugees receive public assistance in Vermont.

But Merdzanovic says in the last five years, Vermont’s Refugee Resettlement Program has brought in about 200 employable adults annually to Chittenden County.  

She says they track those individuals at various stages, and according to 2015 data, “At the eight-month point, 88 percent of all employable adults were considered economically self-sufficient. And what that means is with their income, they are not eligible for public assistance.”

She believes refugees coming to Rutland will quickly become self-sufficient as well. 

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