This Labor Day we should take time to celebrate all of our workers across the state and welcome those who want to use their talents in Nebraska.

The facts regarding our Nebraska workforce shortages are stark. There are 80,000 job openings statewide, and there are not enough native-born Nebraskans to fill those jobs.

Nationwide, Nebraska has one of the highest labor participation rates in the country at 69.3% one of the lowest unemployment rates at 1.9%. For every 100 job openings, there are only 30 people who could possibly fill those jobs. The bottom line is, we need to lift up our hard-working Nebraskans, both in recognition, and by addressing our shortages that leave them overextended and facing impossible choices.

About a year and a half ago, Omaha Together One Community, an institutional based community organization, and the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce began a conversation about immigration reform as a solution to the workforce shortage. That conversation has led to listening sessions with 200 individuals, 50 organizations and five statewide gatherings from North Platte to Lincoln to Omaha.

These meetings have provided stories that paint a grim picture of communities struggling to stay afloat as their schools, restaurants, health providers, churches and grocery stores close. Teachers doubling up to cover gaps in other subjects. Dairy farmers working round the clock with only a few hours of sleep. This path our state is on is not sustainable. We should not be willing to watch our communities wither due to lack of workers needed now in essential jobs. And change will not come if we sit around and wait for it.

OTOC has organized together with the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce to form a statewide, broad-based, diverse and inclusive coalition made up of local chambers of commerce, agricultural and livestock associations, health care, immigrant advocates, academia, organized labor, trades groups and a variety of faith-based, educational, business and philanthropic institutions.

These unlikely allies concur that immigration reform is a solution for our workforce shortage, and we are exploring obstacles and solutions at both the federal and state level.

It has been over three decades since Congress has passed any significant immigration reforms. Because of this, we have families who have been waiting for over 20 years for their opportunity to adjust their status. We must address our broken immigration system by increasing family and employment-based visa quotas and improving visa programs to meet the longterm needs of Nebraska.

In Nebraska there are between 40,000 and 60,000 undocumented workers – many waiting for work permits. Many of us know Immigrant families who are a part of the fabric of our communities. They pay taxes and contribute to their local economy. (Undocumented Nebraskans contribute $40 million annually in state and local taxes alone.) They are full participants in communal life, but due to their status, they live with constant instability.

So, let’s say we agree that welcoming immigrants is a good investment. In order to recruit and, maybe more importantly, retain new Nebraskans, we have to be making wise investments in our infrastructure and support systems. Whether you are coming from another country, another state, recruited from a university, or incentivized by an employer, getting a job might not be enough.

Once here, the coalition has identified four consistent obstacles that are problematic in every community to recruiting, training, and retaining workers: housing, transportation, child care and welcoming communities.

For example, there is a shortage of workforce and affordable housing in all our communities. Currently there are only four companies developing workforce housing statewide, but there are not enough contractors to build what is needed. The fallout is obvious; workers need places to live.

Former State Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg shared a story of a neighboring community that hired a school principal, but when they could not find housing in that area, they left the position.

To recruit families to our state, we must be thinking about how to increase childcare. In Eustice, Nebraska, there are 50 day care slots for 70 applicants, so to ensure some coverage for all they’ve instituted a lottery system, where each day families hold their breath to see if their child will have a spot that day.

We in the coalition are comprised of a variety of experts who have examined, researched, and lived this crisis. It is from our collective experience that we’ve identified obstacles and proffered solutions for the needs of not only immigrant workers, but anyone wanting to work in Nebraska.

This Labor Day, we pledge ourselves to action that will respect the dignity of those who live, work and are a part of the fabric of our communities.


Published 9/3/2023: 

Omaha World Herald:

Nebraska Examiner: