Sharlene Morales felt guilty being in her Florida hotel. There, she had water, light, and air conditioning. In Puerto Rico, her husband and child had limited access to clean water, the light posts were on the ground, and there were mile-long lines for gasoline in the aftermath of hurricane Maria.
Morales is part of a wave of Puerto Rican nurses that were able to get their licenses endorsed by hospitals on the mainland. She moved to the Sunshine State in November of 2017, almost two months after the hurricane devastated the island and three days before her training to work at Florida Hospital in Orlando began.
When she was given the option to stay in a hotel for a couple of months or receive $1,500, Morales chose the former. Further incentives included free transportation services and a $2,000 bonus in her first paycheck, before actually completing the 10-week training. During training, she was paid an hourly rate of $25 and change, a stark contrast from the $14.50 in Puerto Rico, where she had been a nurse for over two and a half years, yet never got a raise.
Morales is an example of how Puerto Rican professionals were able to more easily move and land jobs. While the state of Florida has tailored itself to help all newly-arrived Puerto Ricans by partnering with job agencies like CareerSource, the Multi-Agency Resource Center, and hosting a variety of job fairs, professionals like nurses and teachers have received incentives even before the hurricane. Licenses and certifications are endorsed because of the shortage within certain fields in Florida.
Nurses from around the world can receive an endorsement from a hospital that enables them to continue their work in the United States. Yet after Maria, the endorsement process was expedited, and several fees were waived to quickly employ Puerto Rican nurses, specifically, according to Florida State Representative Bob Cortes.
“We had, and we still have, a huge nursing shortage. We found out that there were all these nurses and nurse practitioners coming from Puerto Rico, that were ready and had their license. We contacted the Florida Board of Nursing and they created an expedited endorsement process,” he said.
But Morales says the process is not as easy as it sounds, “I was applying to Florida Hospital for two years. They kept sending me letters that said, ‘Thank you for your application, but at this time…’ you know, telling me to try again later. I felt discouraged,” she said.
Morales, who was a nurse at Doctors Center Hospital in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, explained that there are several requirements to obtain an endorsement, like a two-year minimum of experience, that, even after the hurricane, are not waived. She added that there is lack of information for Puerto Rican nurses as far as how to apply to receive an endorsement from U.S. hospitals.
“I was applying the wrong way. I was not applying as an international nurse. I thought, ‘I’m not an international nurse. I’m from Puerto Rico. We’re a territory of the United States’. We don’t know,” she said.
Once she learned the correct process form her cousin (who is also a nurse), Morales applied through TAP, the Transcultural Assimilation Program, and finally received her endorsement.
In Morales’ case, the only thing that was expedited as a result of the hurricane was her decision to move to Florida for a round of training that began November 13 so that her daughter and husband could soon follow. They were able to reunite with her in Florida the second week of December.
Still, Cortes stated that over 450 nurses in the Central Florida region alone were hired in the last few months because of the expedited endorsement following the hurricane. “These are nurses that came from Puerto Rico and applied for the licensure. For them to be able to do that was huge for the hospitals, too, because they are going straight to a skilled professional and don’t have to wait for them to go to school. All they have to do is get their [Florida] license and they’re ready to go,” he said.
In addition to nurses, teachers were quickly placed because of a “certification reciprocity structure” that the state and the Department of Education created for them. It allowed teachers from Puerto Rico who were already certified to be immediately employed in a Florida school district, “without some of the burdensome requirements that are required to teach,” Cortes commented.
The government went as far as to issue an executive order that all agencies, like The Department of Business and Professionals Regulations (DBPR) in charge of the licensure for trades jobs like electricians and plumbers, waive some rules to help people arriving from Puerto Rico because of Maria in October.
“What they did immediately was waive all the licensure fees for somebody that was looking to transfer and obtain a license in Florida for work. In addition to that, there was a 1-800 number in Spanish to handle these applicants on a case by case basis, because some licensure required continued education or an educational component; although you might be working as an electrician in Puerto Rico, if you’re not familiar with the Florida building codes, you theoretically cannot work as an electrician here. But they were able to handle a direct line to get them what they needed through apprenticeship or a specific course to obtain licensure and that was extended for two or three months,” he said.
This resulted in expedited licensures for over 50 skills, crafts, and trade jobs, according to Cortes.
Another placement which occurred was within Orlando’s service and tourist industry. Cortes cited that at one point, Universal Studios and Disney World reached out to Puerto Ricans coming from Puerto Rico to fill some of the 3,000 job openings they each had.
“When Puerto Ricans started coming in October, Florida had 230,000 job openings that we needed help filling. In the March 2018 report, it says 22 out of 24 metro areas in Florida had job gains. The largest gains were in Orlando, Kissimmee, and Sanford, which are Central Florida areas. They had a gain of 43,700 jobs.
Cortes stated that other U.S. citizens originally thought that Puerto Ricans going to Florida would be a drain on the economy as they would be in need of health care or government assistance with housing or food stamps. He clarified that the opposite has occurred.
Besides the job gains as a result of new employees, Puerto Rican migrants who had to start anew in Florida have heavily contributed to state sales tax in a state that heavily relies on them — Florida is not an income tax state.
“These are folks that came with hardly anything; they and bought cars, they bought clothes, they bought furniture, they bought food. Any time they bought anything, the state benefited because we were charging sales tax on these things that went toward our industry,” Cortes said, adding that in February, “we found that we were up about 180 million dollars in revenue, largely attributed to folks that we were not expecting, that started buying things.”
The reality is that the possible drain, whether it be economic or the commonly referred to “brain drain” of professionals leaving the island, may be occurring in Puerto Rico, not the U.S.
The island has been struggling to retain its professionals for some time. For instance, in February of 2017, Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Roselló signed a bill which lowered the income tax rate of physicians in Puerto Rico from 33 percent to 4 percent, known as the Incentives for the Retention and Return of Medical Professionals Act. Yet because of the Puerto Rico’s debt and economic stance long before hurricane Maria, professionals have seen themselves forced to move their practices to U.S. states.
Research Director at the Center for the New Economy, Deepak Lamba-Nieves said of the post-Maria period, “Let’s say that they’re expediting these licenses and they are ‘facilitating the incorporation of Puerto Ricans into the professional landscape’ of these places. What was the flow before the hurricane? We may be seeing very similar patterns as pre-hurricane levels, but the intensity may have changed. There may be peaks and there may be valleys.”
The lack of data regarding migration during the post-disaster period is in part due to how difficult it is to measure under such conditions. Furthermore, the number of people that have left has been more closely analyzed than the characteristics and skills that Puerto Ricans are leaving the island without.
Unlike other places, like Mexico and the Philippines, Lambda-Nieves says Puerto Rico has not developed incentives to gain people back once they have developed or improved upon professional skills.
At the beginning of 2018, Florida Governor Rick Scott announced a $1 million investment in a dozen of the state’s workforce development boards to continue to help people displaced by hurricane Maria seeking employment.
For Morales, her life as a nurse in Florida seems too good to be true, “In Puerto Rico, they gave everybody the same bonus, $100. Here, I got $300-and-something because it was 2 percent of my annual paycheck [last year]. I cannot really believe it. Not yet.”