Op/Ed

Ways of Seeing: Could somebody help me please?

CHERYL MITCHELL

Have you ever expressed that worry, lying alone in your hospital bed and wondering if a nurse will come? 

Have you tried to find care for your six-month-old baby so that you can go back to work, and every place you call puts you on a waiting list?  

Are you worried that a family member who is exhibiting exceptional anxiety may become suicidal while waiting to see someone? 

This spring there are critical staffing shortages in many essential public services. More than 86% of Vermont early learning/childcare centers are understaffed. At a press conference in early January our state Legislators declared: “The shortage of nurses in Vermont has reached a crisis point.” Of the 5,000 positions at Vermont’s 16 nonprofit publicly funded community mental health organizations, 970 are now vacant. That’s nearly 20%. Our local police department has had critical unfilled vacancies for more than a year. 

We rely on women and men in these essential roles to keep us safe and healthy. We count on the smooth functioning of essential services to keep our economy viable. Perhaps a mom, who is a nurse, can’t work because there is no care for her child. Hospitals without enough local nurses must rely on traveling nurses who command higher wages and have no roots in the community. Mental health concerns, driven by COVID, are putting our young people at risk. 

Maybe it is time we took a commonsense approach. 

Twenty years ago, the dairy industry was in deep trouble because local people no longer wanted to do the hard work required. Women and men from Mexico and Central America kept the industry alive — despite great odds and the constant fear of deportation. Each year the federal government promised an agricultural labor law that would make their presence here legal. Each year nothing happened. 

In the meantime, these workers have come to know and love our small Vermont communities. Their children live here; they enhance the rich cultural fabric of our communities. They work hard, care deeply about families, and would be a great asset to any organization. Why not permit and encourage public service employment for the current dairy industry workforce and their spouses?

Many organizations would like to be more equitable, diverse, and culturally sensitive, yet struggle to do this when all their employees are of the same racial, ethnic, and economic background. Our police force would greatly benefit from bilingual workers who are culturally sensitive and perhaps have a lived experience of growing up in adversity. Our children might learn to be compassionate and respectful of all people if their teachers and caregivers shared different experiences with them.

One solution seems obvious to me. Why not create a Vermont Visa for Essential Public Service Work? 

We already have a process in place to do background and criminal record checks. Creation of the Vermont Driver’s Privilege Card created such a protocol. We already have qualified people living in our communities who would love to be a more recognized and valued part of the workforce. Why not hire them instead of implementing (failed) schemes for attracting workers from out of state? 

When COVID hit two years ago, Vermont was adept at responding to needed changes, identifying essential occupations, and trying valiantly to assure that the health care, childcare, and public safety needs of the community could be met despite the huge challenges posed by the pandemic. We are at such a crisis point again, but this time potential help is right here in the community.

I believe that more racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse communities would be a benefit to everyone. Public service work was the traditional path to inclusion for immigrants who came to America in the beginnings of the industrial age. Perhaps it could be the path to full inclusion as we enter the next stages of our changing economy. This change will have a heavy focus on caring- and relationship-driven services. Although the barrier of Federal regulations looms large, Vermont has been a leader in the past of practical responses to seemingly intractable problems. There is no reason we couldn’t provide that leadership again.

Cheryl Mitchell is president of Treleven, a retreat and learning program located on her family’s sheep farm in Addison County. She does freelance consulting on issues related to children, families, social policy and farm to community work. She can be reached at [email protected].

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