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Wausau area employers welcoming refugees to their workforce

Published: Dec. 3, 2021 at 6:28 PM CST
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - The director of the Multicultural Cultural Center of Wausau is still in the process of building the foundations of the new organization that will resettle refugees in the area, but one piece of the puzzle that has not been an issue putting together is having employers willing and able to hire them.

Adam VanNoord, the center’s director said they could receive their first refugees by the end of the month, but hiring some of their core team is key to making that happen. He has hired a co-sponsor coordinator who will be in charge of the co-sponsor teams, or teams of volunteers who help connect refugees to resources and help them settle in their new life. The coordinator is also in charge of managing some of the civic engagement with community partners.

He said they have 16 co-sponsor teams in the process of getting approved or trained and could begin seeing teams fully ready in the next three to four weeks. He also has job offers out for two caseworker positions, which are necessary to begin accepting refugees.

VanNoord noted that the situation is fluid and information changes regularly based on their foundational factors and the federal government. He said they will try to make the process as orderly as possible as this new team gets acclimated.

Based on what he is seeing from the U.S. Department of State, he said Wausau could see dozens of refugees weekly during the first few months of 2022. They could get as little as a few days’ notice about incoming refugees. That is why they are working to secure housing now and start paying rent for those places so that so it is ready when they need it, though they are continuing to look for willing landlords. He said New Beginnings for Refugees is working on securing a transitional living facility that could accommodate about 15 people if necessary, though he explained they would like to get people into homes or apartments first if possible.

Having jobs immediately available for refugees has not been an issue. He said employers have been coming to him offering their willingness to hire refugees and help them become self-sufficient in their new homes.

Many of those employers already have experience working with people from a variety of backgrounds, cultures, and languages. Gordon Aluminum embraces people’s differences and has the infrastructure and culture in place to meet employees where they are at and help them to grow.

”We focus on not where people are from, but where they go to, their future. How do we help them look forward and make those changes and assimilate,” Cindy Intribus, the company’s human resource manager said.

While some refugees may arrive with some English experience, having jobs available that do not require that skill can allow refugees to get a place to start.

Hsu’s Ginseng Enterprise has employed refugees in the past when the wave Hmong and Laotian immigrants fled their homes after the Vietnam War. They also employ people who do not speak English at all. Roughly two-thirds of their workforce speak a language other than English. Will Hsu, the president of the company, said they use their bilingual employees to help translate when needed, or to improve whatever their second language may be. There are also translation apps available now that were not around in the early days of the company.

“The translation is never perfect, but if you can get the idea across, typically with a little bit of Spanish, a little bit of English, a little bit of Chinese, you can figure out how to get through it,” the president, Hsu said. “It still requires work. It’s more work than, obviously, being able to talk fluently with someone in their native tongue, but we do feel like both in the culture and the work ethic, there are a lot of parallels between our cultures and work ethics and so that’s really important for us as well.”

He said they put in the effort to make their employees feel welcomed and comfortable in order to get the best out of every employee.

“Recognize that, you know, people are going to operate differently based on where they’re from and what language they speak and be willing to adapt to those rather than saying, no this is the way you’ve got to do things.”

For their immigrant employees, he said they work with local businesses to help supply grocery items that are familiar to their employees’ cultures, or they order a shipment of that food themselves that their employees can take home to their families. They also connect them to the ethnic restaurants in the area that may speak their language or serve familiar food.

It is something the Hsus know is important from experience. Hsu was born in Wisconsin, but his parents immigrated from Taiwan.

“One of the hardest things about when my family first came here is that there weren’t really any Asian grocery stores,” he explained.

They also help to secure or locate housing for their employees. They make religious and cultural accommodations, such as helping employees locate a COVID-19 vaccine that fits with their values. He said some of his Catholic workers had concerns about the Janssen vaccine, so they connected them with where they could find the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.

As they build relationships with employees, he said they often have found that some of their workers who do not speak English had trade skills they were not aware of, like mechanical skills, that they were able to utilize in the work they do at the farm.

“Honestly, I think for most of our foreign employees who are here either short-term or long-term, whether it be because they’re on a path to citizenship or they’re on a temporary work visa, they just want to feel like they’re part of the community and this is home for them. And so anything that you can do as an employer makes it more likely that they’re going to stay and it makes it more likely that you’re going to attract them here.”

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