ROCHESTER — Michelle Zayas worked as a dental assistant in Puerto Rico.
Although she is not currently working in the dental field, the native of Gurabo said she is happy to have landed a full-time position at Hickey-Freeman in Rochester after arriving here three months ago to stay with family members. She said that she and her husband, Javier Vega, lost everything during Hurricane Maria.
“We lost our house and all (our possessions), including our jobs,” she said.
Zayas said her job with Hickey-Freeman will help the couple get on their feet and rent an apartment so she can move her 13-year-old daughter to live with them. The teen stayed in Puerto Rico with relatives until Zayas could get settled in Rochester. She hopes to bring her daughter to Rochester soon, as the girl hasn’t been able to attend school in Puerto Rico since the hurricane devastated the island.
Zayas’ husband, who is a chef, has been experiencing a more difficult time finding work since coming to Rochester, she added.
Overcoming the language barrier is part of the challenge for both of them, since they understand some English but can’t speak it well, she explained. They plan to start taking English as a second language classes so she can eventually return to her work as a dental assistant.
“That is my goal,” she said.
Zayas and Vega are among the hundreds of people who have moved from Puerto Rico to Rochester in the wake of Hurricane Maria and need to overcome language, transportation and other barriers in order to find employment and start a new life, said John Premo, director of Community & Business Services at RochesterWorks!
Rochester Works! and the local office of the state Department of Labor are among the agencies working together to serve these relocating families at a welcome resource center coordinated by Ibero-American Action League, Premo said. Other agencies are assisting with housing, social services and education “to minimize scenarios where people fall through the cracks,” he noted.
Premo’s office, which has bilingual staff members, connects individuals with the services available at the American Jobs Centers it operates at three sites in Rochester. Services include job training, workshops and recruitment events. The Department of Labor assists with questions about unemployment eligibility, and his office facilitates the application process. Having such community agencies in one spot at the welcome resource center is helpful if a person needs transportation to get to a career center or job interview, he said.
“Being at the center like that gives the organizations, agencies and individuals helping (families) the opportunity to be on the same page and communicate with one another … about what are their (the relocating peoples’) needs,” Premo said. “They’re proud people. Nobody wants to come and put their hand out and say, ‘Help me.’ That’s the feedback I’ve gotten. There’s a sincerity and real appreciation for what our community has done for them … that shows through in talking with folks.”
While there are not yet concrete numbers available on how many people have arrived in Rochester from Puerto Rico, Premo said he has heard estimates of 2,000. Since families continue to arrive in Rochester, the welcome center will continue operations every Thursday through January as the participating agencies monitor the situation, said Ibero spokeswoman Evelyn Carassquillo.
At the center, Rochester Works! and the labor department play valuable roles in helping individuals find jobs, said Hilda Rosario Escher, Ibero’s CEO and executive director. Additionally, other agencies involved in the center have had job openings and have been able to offer employment opportunities to participants, she said.
An obstacle to being able to take advantage of certain job opportunities is meeting state regulations in the medical or teaching fields, Premo noted.
“We have had individuals come over who were teachers, doctors, nurses,” he said. “(Obtaining credentials) challenges both the person and the organizations helping them. But it’s a good example of a lot of conversations taking place among service providers on strategizing and figuring out ways to overcome those types of barriers.”
Rosario Escher said Rochester Regional Health is a community partner working to help doctors and nurses find jobs in their fields. For some licenses, it could be a simple matter of paying a fee, Premo said. But if a person has lost all of their possessions, finding the money to cover the fee may not be simple, he added.
If the problem is having lost forms of identification, Monroe County officials have helped individuals to obtain birth certificates or other forms of ID, Premo said.
It is important to have proper identification as well as be able to communicate in English to allay safety concerns for potential employers, Premo said.
“One of the questions from an employment, training standpoint is who can speak, read and write English, and what is their level of comprehension,” he said. “And those numbers have been all over the place.”
Many groups have stepped forward to offer language support, including Ibero, area churches, the Rochester City School District and PathStone Corp, Premo said. Ibero is adding English classes to start getting people ready for employment, said Rosario Escher.