While DeSantis was flying legal asylum seekers to Martha’s Vineyard, business owners in his state were struggling for workers

For the past two years Jan Gautem has been filling in sporadically as a housekeeper at hotels in Orlando, Florida, run by Interessant Hotels & Resort Management, or IHRMC.

When he’s not making beds, he’s busy running the company. He’s the President and CEO of IHRMC — which is based in Orlando, Florida.

“I was making beds a couple of days ago. It’s very tough to find employees,” said Gautem.

There are 11.2 million open jobs in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — up from 10.8 million last year. And there were 1.5 million open hospitality jobs in July. IHRMC says 60% of their 4,500 employees left the company during the pandemic, many to work from home. Now Gautem and other managers are picking up the slack — in housekeeping, the kitchen, and at the front desk.

Which is why some business owners in Florida were perplexed when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis sent legal asylum seekers from San Antonio, Texas, to Martha’s Vineyard on two flights earlier this month.

“Why are they sending them there when we need the people here. We could utilize them,” said Gautem.

Asylum seekers are legally able to work in the United States while they await their asylum cases. During that waiting period, those seeking asylum can apply for work permits — a process that usually takes 180 days before they are authorized.

DeSantis said he believes the asylum seekers were “trying to come to Florida” from Texas. To use money from a $12 million Florida-taxpayer-funded program aimed at moving migrants out of the state of Florida, the planes made a stopover in DeSantis’ state. Whether the asylum seekers intended to go to Florida or not, business owners there are signaling they would welcome them.

“We have a massive labor shortage in Florida in basically every industry here. It’s hard to watch willing workers leave your state with tax dollars,” said Jessica Cooper, owner of Sugar Top Farms just outside of Orlando.

There are more than 670,000 asylum seekers in the United States waiting for their cases to be heard, according to research by Syracuse University. The wait can take four and a half years on average. In the meantime, US asylum seekers can apply for work permits — a process that can take six months on average.

DeSantis said he plans to use all of the $12 million in state funds to move migrants out of Florida.

Lack of domestic workers

Cooper runs a small farm operation with her husband Jordan. They grow produce and edible flowers and sell to local restaurants around Orlando and to Disney World. They need just a handful of farm workers to pick and plant crops, but even those roles are hard to fill.

“We’re finding that it’s hard to keep domestic labor. This is a hard job. This is not for everyone,” said Connor.

The agriculture industry has long relied on foreign labor and visa programs as domestic workers are less reliable and willing to do the physical work. Agriculture is Florida’s second biggest industry behind tourism.

Both industries pay relatively low wages, making it harder to attract workers in a competitive job market. The hospitality and leisure industry pays an average of $20 an hour, while agricultural workers make $18 an hour on average. But for the construction industry, their average wage of $35 an hour isn’t the issue. It’s an aging workforce. The average age of a construction worker is 55 with retirement at 61.

The average age of an asylum seeker is 35 and tend to be younger than the median age in the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security. It’s a population that could help support an aging US workforce.

“We have an aging workforce that has not been backfilled with the young individuals,” said Michele Daugherty, president of the Central Florida chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors.

The group said they would be open to hiring asylum seekers to help with the shortage.

“We can’t leave any stone unturned,” said Daugherty. “If they are able to legally work here, we have jobs for them. We have opportunities for them to not just take care of themselves, but their families.”

Immigration to fight inflation

Last week the Federal Reserve raised interest rates by another three quarters of a percentage point, a sign the central bank is still trying to get a handle on 8.3% annual inflation as food and rent prices rise. But the increases are also inflicting pain by raising rates on Americans’ mortgages, student loans, and credit card debt.

Increasing immigration into the United States could be a better tool argues Bill Ackman, billionaire hedge fund manager and activist investor. In a series of tweets last week targeting the central bank, Ackman said, “Doesn’t it make more sense to moderate wage inflation with increased immigration than by raising rates, destroying demand, putting people out of work, and causing a recession?”

One study by Texas A&M University backs up that claim, citing that more migrant and H2A visas for foreign workers is related to lower inflation. And a new report from the National Foundation for American Policy says increased immigration doesn’t take jobs away from Americans.

“Research examined labor markets where more temporary foreign workers were employed prior to the pandemic and found the drop in H-2B program admissions did not boost labor market opportunities for U.S. workers but rather, if anything, worsened them,” according to the report.

Gautem says current immigration policy is hurting his business rather than helping it. Florida granted 7,101 asylum seekers permanent political asylum status between 2018-2020, just behind California and New Jersey. For example, in 2020 that was 9.3% of all asylum seekers in the state.

Gautam believes if more asylum seekers are granted permanent status, it will be “a game changer” for the longevity of his business and workforce.

“These people are here. They can start working and they can actually start supporting their families. And of course, help us out,” he said.

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