Katya J. and her husband Reginald Louis came to the United States last year, via Chile, after fleeing their native Haiti in 2017 with two small children.

The family first lived in Florida where they obtained work permits in April 2023. Now in Massachusetts, they are staying in a state-funded emergency shelter in Worcester. Katya, who didn’t want her last name used, is working in a plastics factory and her husband is looking for work after a layoff from a machinist job. They’re eager to get out on their own.

“It’s really tough. I never thought I'd be coming to a country where I'm dependent on the government or people to help me,” Reginald told GBH News recently through an interpreter.

The Healey administration has focused on helping migrants obtain work authorization as a way to support their efforts for self-sufficiency and relieve the state’s overwhelmed shelter system. In the last six months, the state has helped over 2,700 migrants obtain working papers and is waiting on confirmation of another 750 people from the federal government.

But migrants like Katya and Reginald say that even with the coveted documents, finding a way out is harder than they thought. They struggle to find jobs, face significant language barriers and lack transportation or skills to get them the jobs they need, according to interviews with migrants and their advocates. This occurs even when many companies say they are seeking to fill vacancies in a state with low unemployment.

“Getting an employer authorization document does not automatically lead to you getting a job right away,” said Jeff Thielman, president of International Institute of New England, a refugee agency that helps families in emergency shelters. “You may not have the language skills required for the workplace, and you may not understand exactly where and how to look for a job.”

State officials say the administration has been successful in helping new arrivals obtain work permits and connect with job training. But they acknowledge that providing the tools to get employed can be a steep challenge.

“Work authorization is critical to gaining a job. But we also know for any individual, whether they are a newly-arrived migrant, or someone who has been hard at work looking for a job, for a time, there's work supports that are needed,” said Lauren Jones, secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development.

Even with a job, affording housing is a challenge

Loudine Dorante recently walked into the lobby at La Colaborativa, a social services organization that holds a day program for migrants staying at an old Cambridge courthouse.

Loudine Dorante outside la colaborativa.JPG
Loudine Dorante takes English and workforce development courses at La Colaborativa in Chelsea.
Photo by Sarah Betancourt, GBH News

The 36-year-old says she too fled Haiti in 2017, lived in Chile, and crossed the border in Tijuana last year. She’s currently on humanitarian parole with her four-year-old son, and has been living in Cambridge since January. She applied for a work permit and received it in late February.

On this March day, Dorante is taking a break from an English class while her son is in daycare. She says she’s taking the class to prepare for a new full-time job in food packaging at a catering company in East Boston. It’s different from the work she used to do — finishing houses with drywall, painting and teaching. She says she’s “overjoyed” to finally work — and learning English has been key to the effort.

“I have almost nothing — all I have is my life, my health, my willpower to move forward.”
Loudine Dorante

“It helped me a lot,’’ she said. “In the interview they ask you your name, your history, where you live, all of that in English.”

Dorante is hoping that she can eventually save up enough for an apartment, or be assigned to state-subsidized housing, but doesn’t know where she will end up. She’s focusing on the day-to-day.

“We’ve gone through so many things to end up here, and to have a job,’’ she said. “Right now, I’m living like a refugee, like an immigrant. I have almost nothing — all I have is my life, my health, my willpower to move forward.”

Immigration advocates know that having a job alone, especially one that pays near minimum wage, will not be enough to ensure full independence in high-cost Massachusetts. A minimum wage job at 40 hours a week generates about $31,000 annually.

The median asking price for an apartment in the Boston area is $3,450 for a two-bedroom apartment, according to Apartment Advisor, and moving in usually costs multiple months rent. In Worcester, it’s significantly cheaper at $2,000 a month, but there’s the added cost of a car in central Massachusetts where there’s less public transportation.

“Folks are going to need some subsidies and some help from the state government or elsewhere to afford an apartment,” said Thielman of the International Institute of New England.

And even for those who find jobs, there's the possibility of having to move again. Families in overflow shelters could be moved to emergency shelters, and those already there, transitioned to subsidized housing. They may not even be in the same area of the state.

“Shelters shift and shelters move. Sometimes people are moved with very short notice,” said Stephanie Rosario Rodriguez, senior director of programs at Massachusetts Immigrant and Advocacy Coalition, or MIRA. The state is trying to find migrants work opportunities close to shelters, but it can be difficult juggling so many competing factors.

“We also recognize that there may be situations where employment, may not be in close proximity to housing, but hopefully we can still ensure, employment as well as housing stability,” Jones from the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development said.

Getting ready to work

Beyond La Colaborativa in Chelsea, many organizations are offering employment training. Among them, the Jewish Vocational Services of Downtown Boston operates a local MassHire office, one of 41 career centers and workforce boards statewide.

JVS has helped migrants in their classes get jobs at Shake Shack, local medical facilities, retailers and restaurants. Hannah Odaa, senior director of refugee employment services at JVS, said it can take anywhere from one to six months to find someone a job.

“That’s quite a big range. It’s because there’s so many different levels of English — of skills, and so many barriers to employment that we’re looking at,” she said.

English class.jpg
An English course for new arrivals at La Colaborativa in Chelsea.
Photo courtesy of La Colaborativa

If a person is single with an open schedule and advanced English, she says, it’s an easy job placement. But if they’re a single parent, with less English proficiency, limited formal work experience and time restraints, getting the right placement takes longer.

Jones, secretary of Labor and Workforce Development, said in late March that the state has helped nearly 500 migrants get employment since November. She said hospitality, retail, food service and health industries, in particular, were hit hard by the pandemic and are in need of staff.

Tonja Mettlach, executive vice president at the Mass Business Roundtable, a public policy organization made up of some of the state’s top executives, says many companies are seeing immigrants as an “untapped talent pool.”

“A lot of employers are really willing to think differently about how they source talent,’’ she said. “It's just sometimes not knowing where to start.”

Other employers are going out of their way to hire new arrivals under state care — or at least keep conversations going with the agencies helping them.

In Worcester, Imperial Distributors is an 85-year-old family-run business that distributes non-food items to grocery stores. In 2022, they started a partnership with refugee agency Ascentria Care Alliance, to help employ Afghan refugees moving to Massachusetts.

They say their effort has been successful. Many of their newest employees are hired through Ascentria from an emergency shelter in Worcester. Positions start around $16 an hour, with room for promotions.

Dean Messier, vice president of human resources at Imperial, says the organization faced short-staffing during the pandemic. With many residents leaving the state, he said, they saw an opportunity to obtain new employees among recent migrants.

To help immigrants feel at home, the company schedules people to work with others who speak the same language. They collaborate with Ascentria about scheduling immigration court dates around work, set up prayer rooms for Muslims and hold a multicultural day where employees bring food from their country of origin. They have a map for people to pin where they've come from to create a sense of community.

There are times, he said, when interested employees don’t speak enough English to be safe among the converter systems and industrial trucks driving around their facilities. In those cases, he said, they refer people back to Ascentria to learn enough English to be reinterviewed later on.

Messier says a little more work in the beginning pays off in the end.

“The reward in the end is so much better, both from knowing that you're able to meet the needs of your company’s workforce and also know that you're helping to change lives for these new immigrants and refugees coming into the country,” said Messier. “It’s the right thing to do.”

At Ascentria, employees are often former refugees themselves — and they want to pay it forward. Samer Salman says he was a refugee from Iraq twenty years ago, and is now the workforce development program manager. He coordinated a job fair recently, and invited around 11 employers, expecting 150 clients to show up. About 600 did, many being migrants in shelters and immigrants of other statuses.

“Right now, our name is famous around the city,” said Salman. We have a good connection with many employers, and a good connection with Walmart, TjMaxx, Imperial, Fedex and others,” he said.

He said that teaching new arrivals about the banking system, and having a credit or debit card, something that might not have existed in their country of origin, is also a way to help them with financial literacy.

At the end of March, MassHire Downtown Boston held a job fair for people with limited English proficiency, who also have obtained work permits. Bon Me, Legal Seafoods, Tatte Bakery & Cafe and Anna’s Taqueria showed up with open positions; 86 immigrants, many from emergency and overflow shelters, arrived to learn more.

Susan Buckey, MassHire Downtown Boston’s director of employer engagement, said so many people showed up that employers had to meet candidates in groups. Another challenge was finding the right interpreters for migrants, she said, who spoke nine different languages.

In a few cases, jobs were offered on the spot. It’s a competitive market, she said, for people seeking entry-level jobs with little English.

“It’s a tough road for them,’’ she said. “They have to be very persistent and keep working very hard to find this first opportunity.”

“We are looking to the future”

Some migrants are trying to make the best of it. Modlaire Phonard, 30, is living at an Arlington emergency shelter with his wife and his two-year-old child. He and his wife arrived from Haiti last year. He applied for work authorization on his own, and said applying for a job was hard.

“Everything was on the internet, and many people don’t know how to use one, and it’s quite complicated for them,” he said in an interview with GBH News.

Phonard interviewed with Amazon and with Marriott, and ended up with job offers from both. He chose to work at the hotel as a full-time cleaning staff supervisor.

“I feel comfortable, I’m learning English. I listen and it can be complicated to respond, but little by little I learn. I have a routine, and I like it,” he said. He takes a bus 45 minutes to get there every day, and gets home around midnight. Phonard said it’s worth the $18 hourly pay with the potential for a raise. He spends two days a week in English classes.

He said he appreciates the help the federal and state governments have given his family. “The government helped us to eat and get on our feet. We’re looking to the future with the opportunities this country has given us,” he said. The number one advice he has for any immigrant is to learn English first, and that it is the greatest hurdle.

With the Healey administration putting pressure on migrants to show they’re looking for employment in a new rule that goes into effect May 1, along with new plans to cap many stays in shelters to nine months, finding jobs that can sustain them is becoming even more pressing.

Katya J. and Reginald Louis also are worrying about what happens next.

When they first arrived in Massachusetts, they both found jobs — she in a plastics factory and he as a machinist. But Reginald says he was quickly laid off and now is back to the job search. He's taking English classes, but is worried.

Katya is concerned about job stability too. She says she was a second-year computer engineering student in Haiti, making detergent and soaps to pay for tuition when they left. But the barrier of English proficiency makes the road to a degree and stability more difficult.

“A kid here in the U.S. that studies computer engineering — they make a lot of money, and they're not dependent on anyone who helped them. But because I came to another country, where the language is not my own — I had to start over. It makes everything so much harder for me,” she said.

GBH Reporter Liz Neisloss contributed to this report.