Job licensing details trip up storm-displaced Puerto Ricans

Michael Melia
The Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. – Trained as a massage therapist in her native Puerto Rico, Catalina Olea says she can only dream of the jobs advertised at Connecticut hotels and spas offering salaries of $40,000 or even $50,000.

Since leaving the island after Hurricane Maria, Olea said she has struggled to pin down how to obtain the professional license she needs to work in her field. For now, she is focusing on improving her English while her husband, an information systems engineer, supports the family by driving for Uber.

“We thought opportunities here would be better,” she said. “It’s a difficult process.”

For Puerto Ricans looking to escape the hurricane’s aftermath, their American citizenship has made relocating to the U.S. mainland as simple as buying a plane ticket. But finding work in their profession can be more complicated. Many have encountered hurdles in getting their credentials recognized, including the absence of documents that were lost or damaged in the storm, state requirements that require additional training and applications for job licenses that can cost hundreds of dollars.

In states that have seen some of the biggest influxes of storm-displaced islanders, advocates and elected officials have proposed changes to help the teachers, hairdressers, medical technicians and others.

In New Jersey, a legislative proposal would clarify that professional licenses from Puerto Rico should be given the same consideration for reciprocity as those from other U.S. states.

“People are displaced. They’re running into some barriers, and I thought it was important to clarify our law and fix it,” said Republican state Sen. Thomas Kean Jr., the bill’s sponsor.

In Massachusetts, people who have come from Puerto Rico are eligible to have licensing fees waived, according to the governor’s office. In Connecticut, where the mayors of the biggest cities have appealed for occupational license fees to be waived, Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he does not have authority to do that himself but he would support legislative efforts to give the Department of Consumer Protection discretion to do so.

Since the hurricane tore across Puerto Rico in September, tens of thousands of islanders have relocated to the mainland to escape the scarcity-marked aftermath and the island’s decadelong economic crisis.

Financial hardship was driving many to relocate even before the storm, and many are now arriving without the extra cash to pay for licensing they might have already gone through in Puerto Rico, according to Samantha Vargas Poppe, an associate director of the policy analysis center at the UnidosUS advocacy group.

“Latinos tend to have higher unemployment rates, and they tend to be concentrated in lower-wage sectors like hospitality and retail, jobs that don’t often come with great benefits. Puerto Ricans coming in to the U.S. who don’t have a job lined up are going to face the same barriers if not more,” she said.

Olea, 33, said she and her husband had been thinking of moving even before the hurricane blew out the windows of their sixth-floor apartment in Guaynabo. A few weeks later, with the spa where she worked still closed amid widespread power outages, they moved to Hartford. The family is getting by with food stamps.

The fee for a Connecticut massage therapist license is $380, but Olea does not know what additional training she might need. Her calls to a government assistance hotline have not turned up anyone who could explain in Spanish how to proceed.

Kimberly Hernandez, 23, from San Juan, spent two years and several thousand dollars on her training as an emergency medical technician before moving to the mainland after the hurricane. She is researching how to obtain additional training to qualify for a Connecticut license. A single mother, she has been staying at a Hartford hotel with federal housing benefits that expire later this month as she searches for employment of any kind at restaurants, factories, nursing homes.

“If I don’t find work, I may need to go to a shelter with my baby,” she said.

For those whose homes were flooded or damaged, it can be a challenge to gather the documents needed even to apply for job licenses. At the Nueva Esperanza advocacy group in Holyoke, Massachusetts, executive director Nelson Roman said the agency routinely helps storm-displaced people with money orders to Puerto Rico agencies to secure replacement birth certificates and other paperwork.

“Those are the constant daily hiccups we find,” he said.

While the influx of people since the hurricane has brought new attention to the requirements that vary by state, they have been a source of frustration for others who had been relocating from the island in growing numbers. Yanil Teron, director of the Center for Latino Progress in Hartford, said teachers from out of state in particular have had difficulty earning licenses in Connecticut.