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This story is part of a larger package for The Reader and El Perico’s December issue about the state’s tight labor market.

Becki DeSantiago’s 13-year-old daughter rushed home from school in October to tell her mom about her eighth grade history class’ extra credit assignment: to talk about one of the many ongoing labor strikes in the United States.

“She’s like, ‘Mom, I have this assignment!’” DeSantiago said with a laugh, as she stood in the early November sun holding a picket sign that read “ON STRIKE AGAINST KELLOGG COMPANY FOR WAGES, BENEFITS, AND CONDITIONS OF EMPLOYMENT.” 

While other kids may have done research on the internet, DeSantiago sat down with her daughter and talked about why she and her coworkers decided to go on strike. 

“She was real excited to go back to school to share that her mom is part of it,” DeSantiago said.

Kellogg’s employees like DeSantiago are among thousands of striking workers nationwide demanding better wages, better working conditions and more benefits. And they have the upper hand, because right now workers are hard to come by. As the pandemic recedes, people in every industry are quitting and not coming back to the labor force, leading to more job openings than available workers and creating a tight labor market or what the media is calling “The Great Resignation.”

“We’re not gonna take less than what we’re getting now,” said DeSantiago, a 15-year employee at the Omaha Kellogg’s manufacturing plant. Kellogg’s workers like DeSantiago are among thousands of workers nationwide who went on strike this fall. Photo by Chris Bowling.

Nowhere is that felt more than in Nebraska.

The state hit a record low unemployment rate of 1.9 % in October, marking the lowest unemployment rate of any U.S. state in recorded history. Yet Nebraska also continues to grapple with a shortage of workers to fill positions

In August 2021, while about 22,400 Nebraskans were un-employed, there were 66,000 job openings.That made about three job openings for every unemployed Nebraskan, marking the largest labor shortage among all states at the time, according to a report from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

The “Great Resignation,” labor strikes and labor shortages are revealing issues Nebraskans have long dealt with: young people leaving the state due to “brain drain,” immigration policies limiting communities and their economies, and less-than-equitable workplaces.

These challenges have been percolating for years. But their collision right now is what makes addressing Nebraska’s labor force issue so crucial.

For workers like DeSantiago, there’s no going back. It’s her sixth week standing on the gravel driveway outside the Omaha Kellogg’s manufacturing plant. She, like many others, is missing out on wages that for the past 15 years have allowed her to support her two children as a single mom. But she and her coworkers say it’s a sacrifice they’re willing to make.

Greeting her fellow striking coworkers, DeSantiago wears sunglasses, comfortable sneakers, a neon construction vest and a winter cap bearing her union’s name stitched in red, white and blue threading — ‘BCTGM 50G’, the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union. 

DeSantiago has represented BCTGM 50G in negotiations with Kellogg Co. since the strike began in October. Unions have always “been in [her] blood,” she said. Her father was the union president while working at this Kellogg’s plant during her childhood.

The strikes come after Kellogg Co. reported more than $1.7 billion in profits in 2020, while some manufacturing plant employees — deemed “essential workers” during the pandemic — worked 12-hour days, 7 days a week and, according to DeSantiago, sacrificed time with family and risked their health. Most recently, the union turned down voting on Kellogg Co.’s Last Best Final Offer” to striking workers. The company says no further negotiations will be scheduled. 

Still, union members plan to continue their strike. DeSantiago said it is about ensuring the workers of the future have it better.

“We’re not gonna take less than what we’re getting now,” DeSantiago said of the latest offer. “Why should we give up anything when [Kellogg’s executives] are getting a 20% increase in [their] wages and [their] bonuses?” The Reader could not substantiate the amount of Kellogg’s executive bonuses.

What is happening to the labor force?

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Christopher Decker. Photo from the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

It’s common for an economy that’s recovering from recession to go through cycles of a tight labor market. But the pandemic escalated these problems at a time when Nebraska’s labor force was already under duress.

“I think the single most important issue for the next five to 10 years in the state of Nebraska has got to be focused on labor force,” said Christopher Decker, a professor of economics at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

When businesses opened up again and COVID-19 restrictions loosened, the need for onsite labor accelerated in retail and restaurants. Business owners’ hopes to get to pre-pandemic levels of operations were crushed by the reality that there weren’t as many workers available or interested in coming back.

Decker said older Nebraskans are moving out of the labor force, following nationwide trends of Baby Boomers choosing an early retirement instead of finding a job in the pandemic.

The pandemic also moved workers to make job changes that allow them to work from home or found ways to support themselves outside the traditional labor force, Decker said. Still, he said, others have decided to withdraw from the workforce entirely, falling back on savings and other income to wait it out for a better job.

But not everyone can afford that. 

“In order to not be participating in the labor force, you need to have a way of sustaining yourself somehow,” Decker said. “If you're choosing, for example, not to go back into the labor force right away after the pandemic, in search or hope of finding a better situation, you need to have resources to fall back on, whether that's savings or generational wealth.”

Immigrants and racial and ethnic minorities tend to work in jobs with lower wages and salaries and are likely to have smaller savings when compared to their white counterparts, Decker said. Such resources may not be as readily available to up and leave the workforce for a large portion of the Latino population, for example, who have higher labor participation rates than their white counterparts, according to Decker’s research.

Meanwhile, between the state’s high levels of “brain drain” and Black and brown residents choosing to leave based on racism they’ve experienced, young Nebraskans decide to leave the state for college, new jobs and other opportunities they can’t find here. At the same time, not enough young people are recruited in to replace them. 

“How do we keep that young, vibrant population here to support growth in the future?” asked Decker.

Building equitable workplaces

Bianca Harley had the same question. But she wants to know how it pertains to Omaha’s young Black and brown students and residents of other marginalized identities. As the senior director of diversity and inclusion at the Greater Omaha Chamber, Harley sees addressing inequities at their roots as the key solution to Nebraska’s labor force challenges.

“Systemically, there are still barriers and issues that we can address so we can even see a workforce solution,” Harley said.

A community survey the chamber conducted in 2015 revealed that Black young professionals were five to six times less likely to recommend Omaha than their white peers. After two years of focus groups and collaborative research and outreach, Harley said, it was clear the trends hadn’t changed.

In 2017, just 43% of Black young professionals surveyed felt they had equal opportunity for promotion and advancement. 

The same survey showed 52% of Black young professionals aspired to own a small business, while 5% of Omaha’s minority population owned a business, which was lower than the national average of 7%.

These are the types of gaps in Omaha's workforce Harley and her team aim to close with the CODE initiative. CODE, or the Commitment to Opportunity, Diversity and Equity, launched in 2016 to help businesses create more equitable workplaces.

“A lot of times [business owners say] ‘We have this diversity statement, and it’s gonna give us an inclusive workplace,’ and then we survey the employees and they are like, ‘Yeah that diversity statement isn’t necessarily having the intended impact on our experiences,’” Harley said.

While the coronavirus pandemic illuminated and exacerbated health disparities in Black and brown communities, the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent movements for racial justice amplified the need for change in many facets of life, including work.

That was the catalyst that pushed leaders of many Omaha organizations to reflect on how they had or had not taken authentic action in their workplaces, beyond just a statement, Harley said.

CODE’s Employer Coalition provides a path for businesses to measure their progress and hold themselves accountable. They’re asked to make three commitments: 

1. create a diversity and inclusion strategy; 

2. hire someone to lead that work; and

3. participate in an assessment that surveys their growth.

The Greater Omaha Chamber's CODE homepage.

Efforts from CODE are becoming especially important as the greater Omaha area is becoming more diverse. A study published by PolicyLink, a national research institute, and the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, showed communities of color are driving the Omaha-Council Bluffs regions growth, and 41% of the population is projected to be made up of racial minorities by 2050, according to the Omaha chamber. 

That means more opportunities are needed that help young Nebraskans — especially those of Black and brown communities — to see themselves within Omaha’s future.

“Do we have a better chance of recruiting someone to Omaha who is like, ‘Where is Omaha?’ Or someone who has roots here, who has family here, who has connections to the community,” she said.

Though brain drain is sending students away, Harley thinks CODE’s new program “Growing Home” could build an opportunity to bring them back home. She said the mentorship and development program is for Nebraska students who choose to attend Historically Black Colleges, Hispanic-serving Institutions and out-of-state universities.

Over winter and summer breaks students will spend time growing their professional networks in Omaha, engaging in community service and building their resumes. In the summer, they’ll work an internship with an Omaha-based company.

When it comes time for graduation, Harley hopes students will say, “‘My network is there in Omaha, I have a mentor there in Omaha, I’ve interned in Omaha,” putting Omaha back on the map for them.

Since the program will begin with its first year cohort in January, there’s no telling yet how successful it will be, though the chamber will soon publish reports and data, Harley said. Harley hopes it creates a pathway for students who want to explore outside Nebraska during college to see themselves within the future of Omaha upon their return.

Last year more than 200 of Omaha’s CEOs pledged to solve exactly these kinds of issues through the We Willstatement. And while Omaha waits to see what solutions trickle down from the top, everyday people are already building the future of the city’s labor force, albeit in a much quieter way. 

Making space for critical contributors

It’s almost 6:30 on a Tuesday night, and Alma Mejía takes her seat in a basement classroom alongside four other women at the Latino Center of the Midlands on South 24th Street. Her classmates, all adults, take out spiral notebooks to begin their English as a second language class. 

Enrolling in Latino Center of the Midlands’ English class is a critical step in Mejía’s plan to go back to school for nursing, a career she worked in for years in El Salvador before she came to Omaha. She’s worked in restaurants since 2001 to support her son through high school and college.

“It’s my turn to see if I can achieve my dreams,” she says in Spanish. 

The Latino Center of the Midlands on S. 24th Street in Omaha, Nebraska. Photo taken on Dec. 1, 2021 by Chris Bowling.

Mejía is one of many in Nebraska’s rising immigrant population working to improve her opportunities within the workforce.

Immigrants continue to be critical contributors to Nebraska’s economy, generating more than $2.4 billion toward the Omaha metro’s economy in 2019, according to a recent report from the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies (OLLAS). The benefit is felt especially in rural towns where immigrants make up most of the population growth, without which businesses could close and vital city services like schools and libraries would dwindle.

But finding a place in the workforce is no easy task. For Mejía, the language barrier and immigration policy kept her from continuing her nursing career in Nebraska, which currently has a serious nursing shortage.

“Part of my goal is to help my own community communicate with medical professionals, because there are many people who don’t speak Spanish,” she said. “If I go to a hospital and see a Hispanic or Latino, I have more confidence in speaking with them or telling them how I feel.”

In the neighboring classroom, almost a dozen more men and women chat in their seats before their citizenship class begins. Sergío Garcia has traveled from Fremont for his class; there are more resources for Spanish-speakers like him in Omaha, he says, and he wants to move here soon. He currently works in a factory but is preparing for his citizenship test so he can get a job as a licensed truck driver.

Nebraska has a long way to go to ensure that all immigrants are able to seek employment and feel included in the community, said Jane Seu, an immigration legal fellow at the ACLU of Nebraska.

“There’s no shortage of willingness to work,” Seu said. But state government leadership that supports anti-immigrant policies raises barriers that make it more difficult for immigrants — regardless of their status — to work and to seek employment, even in the current labor shortage, she said.

That’s why she and other advocates are pushing for changes in Nebraska’s immigration policies.

From an economist’s perspective, Decker sees the conversation long overdue.

“We've been talking for 30-plus years about how necessary immigration reform is,” Decker said. “It is becoming increasingly vital to find some solution that will balance economic, political, social, cultural and legal concerns, and you need more than one mind at the table. But you do need a rational discussion.”

Putting each link in place

Understanding how to relieve some of the pressure squeezed on Nebraska from a tight labor market is complicated. But that’s because work itself is complicated.

Gluing together a network of CEOs to make Omaha workplaces more equitable is just as important as teaching English and citizenship classes in a basement classroom in South Omaha. Stymying the brain drain is just as important as reforming immigration. And no solution is siloed — they all have impacts on one and another, and the solution requires balancing them all.

If we don’t, the impact is just as far-reaching. If businesses can’t fill positions, it means fewer jobs. Fewer jobs lead to less spending, and less spending means less demand for all the things we buy, which could put even more workers out of a job. 

In short, you can only pull the chain so tight until it breaks.

“If you remove one link in a chain the whole chain separates,” Decker said. “That's kind of the implication for economic impact.”

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Subscribe to The Reader Newsletter

Our awesome email newsletter briefing tells you everything you need to know about what’s going on in Omaha. Delivered to your inbox every day at 11:00am.

Become a Supporting Member

Subscribe to and become a supporting member to keep locally owned news alive. We need to pay writers, so you can read even more. We won’t waste your time, our news will focus, as it always has, on the stories other media miss and a cultural community — from arts to foods to local independent business — that defines us. Please support your locally-owned news media by becoming a member today.

Bridget Fogarty, Report for America Corps Member

Bridget Fogarty is a Report for America Corps member reporting with The Reader and its billingual (Spanish/English) sister publication El Perico.

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