Moody’s Investors Services, usually busy downgrading Puerto Rico’s $70 billion-odd debt, issued a report recently stating the island’s current population loss, which is of historic proportions, is a boon for Central Florida, where Puerto Ricans already make up 12 percent of workers – even higher in some sectors like transportation. And that figure is expected to grow.
For decades, Puerto Rican migrants were characterized as a “problem” by receiving communities: New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and even Florida. Stories in the New York Times and elsewhere referred to the city’s “Puerto Rican problem.”
But that is incorrect. Migrants should be defined by the more powerful “P” word – pipeline. Puerto Rican migration is a worker pipeline that is pumping Central Florida’s economic engine.
The financial crisis on the island is sending tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans this way each year. The crisis is likely to come to a head in December, when about $300 million in debt payments is due. Puerto Rico must decide whether to pay its debt or keep the government going. Faced with such a decision, it’s clear the real hurting for Puerto Ricans hasn’t even begun.
It isn’t the first time that Puerto Ricans perform the service of boosting a stateside economy. Beginning in the early 20th century, when the United States took over the island, the federal government, with the complicity of the island government, shuttled Puerto Ricans off the island to Hawaii (to harvest pineapples), to Pennsylvania (to harvest mushrooms) and even Florida for the sugar cane crop. The largest number of Puerto Ricans went to New York, where they propped up the manufacturing sector, particularly the garment industry, before those jobs were sent packing overseas.
The collapse of manufacturing in the Northeast in the 1970s was a blow to Puerto Rican workers, who began looking for greener pastures by returning to the island or moving to places like Central Florida.
Flash forward to September 2015 and Florida boasts a 5.2 percent unemployment rate. Orange County’s rate is an even rosier – 4.7 percent – close to full employment. That is, everybody who wants to work is working. If everybody who wants to work is working, then how are Central Florida employers going to fill job openings either for seasonal work or, beyond that, non-seasonal work in 2016?
Seen in this light, the Puerto Rican worker pipeline starts to take on greater significance and importance to Central Florida’s economy. Puerto Ricans are providing the muscle that turns the gears of local economic activity.
Central Florida Unemployment as of September 2015
Orange County … 4.7 percent
Osceola … 5.5 percent
Seminole … 4.6 percent
FLORIDA … 5.2 percent
Source: Florida Dept. of Economic Opportunity
˜˜Maria T. Padilla, Editor