The rewarding work of refugee employment services during COVID-19

November 28, 2021

By David Werning, Managing Editor

Imagine this scenario: you don’t know English, you lost your job, and you’re worrying about how – or if – you will recover. This situation did not have to be imagined by 225 refugees in the Cincinnati area during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, 31 of whom were new arrivals. The situation was all too real for them. Their worries, however, were eased when they turned – some of them for the second time – to the employment services offered through Catholic Charities Southwestern Ohio’s (CCSWOH) refugee resettlement department.

Many of the refugees, like the 31 new arrivals, had been welcomed to the U.S. by CCSWOH, receiving reception and placement services during their first 90 days. A case manager assigned to each individual (and/or family) helped to get basic needs in place as soon as possible: a home, social security numbers, admission to a school or training program, and enrollment in benefits.

Rachel Burgess, who supervises case management and manages employment services for refugees at CCSWOH, said the most pressing need after the basic necessities have been met is finding employment. 

The first piece of employment services is the intake assessment, during the initial 10 days we find out the refugees’ work and education history and their plans and goals. Do you plan to work or not? Do you want to work during the day or during the night, etc.?

Rachel Burgess, Catholic Charities Southwestern Ohio

Based on the goals of the person, CCSWOH employment services provides a job readiness class, a resume workshop, and training on how to search for a job, fill out an application, and participate in an interview. At the same time, refugee clients are working with a job developer to review open jobs in the Cincinnati area. If there is a job that matches the client’s skills and education, and fits within any transportation, health or time constraints, then the job developer helps with the application and interview.

The whole process from reception to integration into the community flows like a running stream due to the dedication and expertise of the CCSWOH staff, as well as community partners such as volunteers, landlords, and employers. Since 1980 CCSWOH has resettled in the greater Cincinnati area thousands of refugees from all over the world, including Vietnam, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bhutan, Syria and Eritrea.

Then came COVID-19. 

Like many organizations, CCSWOH had to pivot fast to implement federal and state mitigation efforts to protect their staff and clients from getting the virus. The staff also wanted to continue serving people who were in vulnerable situations and who had few resources and fragile support networks, including some of their refugee clients.

Burgess said it was March 19, 2020, when the first refugee client came to CCSWOH with a COVID-19 unemployment notice, and clients kept coming throughout the following months. Before the pandemic, many of the refugees had acquired jobs within the hotel and food production industries, two industries that were especially affected by the pandemic and had laid off thousands of workers around the country, including Cincinnati.

“For several months after March, we were in full response mode: our focus was on unemployment, rent assistance, and COVID education,” Burgess said. “We were helping clients create unemployment accounts, understand the requirements, and access the benefits, whether it was Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) or regular unemployment.”

Burgess and her fellow workers also reworked employment services in light of COVID-19. While they did have to reduce a number of in-person services, they moved into a virtual setting, working from home and conducting video chats with clients and, in many cases, the clients’ interpreters as well. The pressing need, again, was getting a job as soon as possible.

Fortunately for clients living in the Cincinnati area, the sudden loss of hotel and food production jobs was filled by a surplus of warehouse jobs, particularly with those companies that were handling the explosion of ecommerce purchases by people sheltering in their homes. Many of CCSWOH’s refugee clients were hired by Amazon, which has a major distribution center in the Cincinnati area.

Other employment services continued online. For example, CCSWOH partnered with First Financial Bank in Cincinnati to provide financial literacy classes to refugees. English as a Second Language classes were offered via the internet too. For those clients who lacked the technology to take advantage of the online services, CCSWOH loaned Chromebooks.

Some of the clients who can’t even read in their own language are learning how to turn on a Chromebook, go to Google Chrome, click on the camera, and access the class.

Rachel Burgess, Catholic Charities Southwestern Ohio

“Some of the clients who can’t even read in their own language are learning how to turn on a Chromebook, go to Google Chrome, click on the camera, and access the class,” said Burgess.

CCSWOH Employment Services continues to serve the refugee community even as the U.S. starts to edge toward the end of the pandemic. Burgess commented that the work during the pandemic has been challenging and difficult, but at the same time very rewarding.

“We are not just a new arrival place; we are a place for refugees and immigrants to come for as long as they need our services,” Burgess said. “We want to help the clients with the information and skills they need to be successful, to empower them so they can become self-sufficient.”

Program Stories

Stay connected. Sign up for updates from Catholic Charities.