May 1, 2020

Happy May Day from JSS: Supporting Clients on International Workers’ Day
By Becca Schwartz, Resettlement Director

May 1st is International Workers’ Day and in many countries it is a holiday celebrating workers’ rights. The roots of the holiday, like our Labor Day, go back to the Haymarket Affair in Chicago in 1886, when a peaceful rally in support of the 8-hour work day turned violent. Most countries that refugees to the US come from celebrate May Day.

Refugees to the US come ready to work. Many were prevented from working in the countries they initially fled to before resettling in the US. They are eager to begin employment as soon as possible when they arrive in Madison. JSS case managers guide new arrivals through American norms and expectations around work and inform them of their rights, including the 8-hour work day. To some refugees, worker rights’ is a brand new concept. Because of this, the advocacy provided by JSS staff and volunteers is so important.

JSS helps clients obtain their first jobs upon arrival. Refugees’ “first jobs” are often considered menial — housekeepers, custodians, dishwashers, grocery baggers and laundry workers. As self-sufficiency is the goal of each refugee, “menial” jobs enable these clients to support their families and build their lives anew.

As we find ourselves contending with a pandemic, it becomes clear that some jobs that previously were seen as menial are, in fact, essential for keeping us all healthy and safe. JSS is checking with clients to ensure they are provided Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to remain safe on the job. In some communities where staff have unsafe working conditions, the workers are striking. Workers at Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods and Target are striking so that their employers will provide basic protections (CBS news article).

Before COVID-19 hit Wisconsin, by the time they were here for eight months, JSS refugee clients had a 100% employment rate. Then, in late-March clients began losing their jobs. JSS Staff quickly turned the focus from identifying new jobs to navigating Unemployment Insurance, and the brand-new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. As the general population continues to struggle with an overloaded unemployment system, case managers and clients stay the course, with a few receiving payments, most have not.

At this strange time, we find ourselves working with these two groups of workers; those who remain employed and are putting themselves at risk, and those who have lost employment and are looking for ways to support their families. On this International Workers’ Day, we ask you to consider these JSS clients and their counterparts across the country, stand with them for fair and safe working conditions. Let us also use this May Day to shift our image of the workers in our communities who are truly essential.

And let us thank all of the JSS case managers who are assisting our clients in finding work and advocating within the workplace.