A panel hosted by the Rural Community Action Assembly last September brought together worker advocates, local government officials, and other community members to discuss better integration of both immigrants and U.S.-born residents in the local workforce.

There are significant barriers that make employment uncertain for both local residents and immigrants in rural Pennsylvania, said Kyle Kopko, executive director of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania (CRP). Reducing those barriers requires partnerships between organizations and individuals in these communities, he said.

Kopko presented data on population and labor force participation at the assembly. According to this data, labor force participation in most of the state’s rural counties lags behind the statewide rate of 49.6%. Kopko said the growing number of retirees combined with a declining birth rate could lead to a shortage of working-age people in these counties.

Over 70% of Pennsylvania’s immigrant community is aged 16 to 64 compared to 62% of U.S.-born Pennsylvanians, said Monica Munn, chief social impact officer of World Education Services (WES). She said that the current rate of immigration could help restore the population in 17 years, helping to prevent a potential labor shortage.

“From a working age population side, already many immigrants and refugees are more likely to be participating in the workforce and be of age in that key window,” Munn said in an interview after the assembly.

Immigrants to Pennsylvania’s rural counties face significant legal and social hurdles to employment, said Craig Livermore, co-director of the Midstate Council on Occupational Safety and Health. 

For example, migrant dairy workers, many of whom are undocumented, face barriers like social isolation, employer exploitation, and lack of knowledge of immigration law, he said during the panel.

Community Bank N.A Branch Manager Vicky Perez has seen firsthand the shift in attitude towards immigrants in the former coal mining town of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, where she has lived for the past 14 years. Perez said that when Hispanic migrants first arrived, job discrimination made it difficult for them to find employment despite the growing number of manufacturing jobs. 

“At the beginning, what I was seeing was that a lot of the companies and manufacturers that were in the area were requiring for employees to speak English,” Perez said. “So right there and then that was isolating a lot of people.”

These issues are further complicated by a scarcity of resources and support networks in rural areas, which also makes it difficult for U.S.-born residents to get jobs, Kopko said.

“It’s not terribly surprising because generally speaking, rural communities don’t have as many human services or as large of governments,” Kopko said. “They simply don’t have the same number of resources, generally speaking, compared to our urban communities across the commonwealth.”

But over a decade of efforts brought significant improvements. 

Perez said employers and other stakeholders in Hazleton have adapted to the demographic shift through inclusive workplace policies and cultural education that has brought together immigrants and rural residents. This has not only reduced employment barriers but has also eased tensions between the two communities.

“At the beginning [it] was a little bit difficult, because of course you have two cultures that do not necessarily understand each other well,” Perez said. “And this is where I kept talking about how coming to the table to have those difficult conversations really can shift a town, and we are the prime example of it.” 

Employers play an important role in building these support networks, Munn said. She works with WES to help connect employers and universities with immigrants, refugees, and international students. She said that employers can help provide the key services that both rural and immigrant workers lack access to.

“We know in rural communities, transportation, access to childcare, those can be really significant barriers to participating in the workforce or staying in the workforce,” Munn said. “And certainly immigrants and refugees have that experience as well. Sometimes employers can play a role in solving that. Sometimes it’s onsite daycare or support for providing transportation support or stipends or thinking about scheduling differently.”

Unions could also play an important role in integrating rural and immigrant workers, Livermore said. His union is working to provide technical training and a sense of belonging that can help these workers at their jobs and in their communities. He said that it’s important to frame both groups of workers as essential to the health of the economy.

“…We all want things to be built in America,” Livermore said. “To do that, we need immigrants. But also in my mind, the phrasing is alongside American born workers…So it’s like we’re not trying to replace one with the other. This is something where we all benefit from having a stronger workforce.”

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