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After months of waiting, Haitian migrants in Greenfield start getting work authorizations, UMass jobs

Many new arrivals to western Massachusetts from places like Haiti and Venezuela have anxiously waited months for federal work authorizations.

Some Haitians living in Greenfield have finally received their documents and are now finding employment.

A few are working at UMass Amherst — like Matthew, who is a new dishwasher for the university’s main dining hall.

“We are really happy to have an earning,” Matthew said in Haitian Creole. “We went for so long without having any income or possibility of it. But now, we can pay our bills and help our families back home.”

In this story, we’re only using the migrants’ first names because they don’t want to compromise the safety of their family members in Haiti.

Matthew got this job through Pamela Adams, the director of bakery operations at UMass Amherst. Adams speaks Haitian creole fluently after growing up in the south of Haiti and has been volunteering at the state emergency shelter in Greenfield since 2021.

That’s where Adams met Matthew and presented him with a list of open positions at UMass.

“I know people kind of get a little bit bitter about migrants coming in and taking our jobs, [but] I can't tell you how many years we've had positions posted here at UMass. And I found a workforce that wants to work and they’re banging the door down,” Adams said.

Matthew works alongside his wife, , who cleans the dining halls. She said most of her money goes to her family in Haiti.

Emma said she has her four children with her, but the rest of her family — her mother and siblings — are back home. She said her brother was kidnapped and she was able to send money to his captors.

He’s now free.

Emma, a Haitian migrant staying at the state shelter in Greenfield, Massachusetts, cleans a dining room at UMass Amherst after receiving her federal work authorization.
Nirvani Williams
Emma, a Haitian migrant staying at the state shelter in Greenfield, Massachusetts, cleans a dining room at UMass Amherst after receiving her federal work authorization.

Adams knew how important this money would be for Matthew and Emma — not only to help their families back in Haiti, but also to further their lives in western Massachusetts.

So she contacted state Sen. Jo Comerford (D-Northampton) and asked if she could help expedite the hiring process at UMass.

“What I did was, [I] was in direct connection with UMass — the chancellor's office — to let the chancellor know about the migrants and refugees who were in western Massachusetts and underscored my significant hope that UMass would be able to step up as a quick employer of these individuals,” Comerford said.

They were able to start working within a week and a half.

As Elizabeth Sweet from the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition points out, these new workers could alleviate some of the workforce shortages in the state right now.

“We have folks who are coming here who want to work and contribute," Sweet said. "And it feels like a really significant opportunity to keep our state's economy strong."

Before they could even apply for a job, it took Matthew and Emma a little more than three months to get their federal work authorization. That’s a lot faster than the process was earlier last year.

But Sweet said that still continues to be a challenge for many migrants.

“It still does take time for them to get connected to legal services and then have those applications processed by the federal government and actually get their work authorizations,” Sweet said. “So, there often are delays at that stage.”

State shelters and overflow shelters are at capacity right now. The state said it needs these residents to get jobs and find housing elsewhere.

Officials in Gov. Maura Healey’s administration said this is a top priority. Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development, Lauren Jones, said MassHire employees have been visiting shelters to connect more migrants to jobs.

“Job fairs and connecting more individuals ... to career coaching,” Jones said. “We're also making sure that individuals who are living in shelters and looking for work also have opportunities for training, especially ESOL [English for Speakers of Other Languages] training.”

According to Adams, that language training is key. The university offers English classes as part of their new hire training for non-English speakers.

“The Haitians that I've worked with — I tell them that it's really, really important that you learn the English language. That's how you're going to be successful,” Adams said.

Pamela Adams, the director of bakery operations at UMass Amherst, surveys dough for the university's dessert menu.
Nirvani Williams
Pamela Adams, the director of bakery operations at UMass Amherst, surveys dough for the university's dessert menu.

Matthew and Emma have been working hard to learn English.

Right now, Emma said learning English her top priority. Eventually, she wants to go for her degree. But before she can do that, she said, she needs to raise her children and help them.

Emma used to cry a lot and suffered from depression. But getting a job and leaving the shelter each day has been wonderful, she said.

“It feels like a deliverance,” she said.

Matthew and Emma are still at the shelter, but need to look for housing soon because of a new law the Healey administration passed this year limiting how long families can stay in the emergency shelter system.

Matthew said he feels like they have enough money to move out. He said he’s discussing options with his caseworker to leave the shelter by the end of June.

Matthew will be working full-time over the summer at UMass. He said that will have to be the money that carries them through — until Emma resumes her seasonal position in the fall.

Disclaimer: The license for NEPM’s main radio signal is held by UMass Amherst. The  newsroom operates independently.

Nirvani Williams covers socioeconomic disparities for New England Public Media, joining the news team in June 2021 through Report for America.
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