The Branson Puerto Rico Talent Attraction Program Gives Back to Puerto Rican Communities

The Branson community recruits a chunk of its workforce from Puerto Rico. Now, community leaders are finding a way to give back.

By Jenna deJong

May 2020

Residential street in Puerto Rico
Photo courtesy ShutterstockA quiet, residential road in Puerto Rico.

The colors of the Puerto Rican sky were most vibrant at the earliest hour of the morning. I sat in the backseat by a window, lounging as we drove to the work site, and feasted my eyes on the impossibly blue hue of the sky. This trip we were on happened in late February, when Springfield was slowly crawling its way through a gray winter, so the rich green shades of seaweed and lush fauna were, though expected, breathtaking all the more. I was a bit naive in what I expected that first morning as we drove to the worksite. One minute I was soaking in as much of the view as I could, and the next we were suddenly turning left onto a small neighborhood street. As we made our way down the paved path, I kept an eye on the retreating ocean view, and soon realized, when the car was parked, that the sea was only a mile, maybe two, from where we would be working. This thought was always with me as the days passed.

For nine days, I accompanied the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce on its second outreach trip to Puerto Rico. Four of those days were spent renovating a local’s home. Juanito Borques’ two-story, faded salmon-colored house was in disrepair due to Hurricane Maria—a Category 5 hurricane that wreaked havoc on the Caribbean in 2017. Borques’ home is located in Huamacao, one of the hardest-hit communities by Maria, and 17 months after the hurricane swept the land, damage to much of the community’s infrastructure remains to be fixed.

“Before we recruited from Puerto Rico, many smaller hotel owners said they were cleaning rooms themselves due to lack of workforce.”
— Heather Hardinger

That’s where the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce comes in. As the director of workforce strategy and programs for Taney County Partnership, the chamber’s economic development division, Heather Hardinger and her team launched the Puerto Rico Talent Attraction Program. The program assists the entertainment and hospitality industries with finding seasonal and temporary workers. In the last three years, the Branson area has recruited more than 500 Puerto Ricans to southwest Missouri.

Branson members of the Puerto Rico Talent Attraction Program
Photo by Clayton BaumgarthThe crew from Branson took a break outside of the house they renovated in Puerto Rico.

Without these workers, Hardinger says the Branson tourism community would struggle. “Our community had roughly 2,000 job openings at peak season for the past three to four years,” Hardinger said in an email. “We have more jobs than people to fill them and are still growing rapidly. Without workers from Puerto Rico and support from international workers and exchange visitors, most of the hotels and many of the attractions would not be able to operate at peak capacity. Some would not be able to operate at all if they relied only on local recruitment. Before we recruited from Puerto Rico, many smaller hotel owners said they were cleaning rooms themselves due to lack of workforce.”

Juanito Borques' and his home before the makeover
Photo by Clayton BaumgarthJuanito Borques' home was damaged by Hurricane Maria. The Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce helped repair his home during their visit.

In 2019, the team organized the first community outreach trip to Puerto Rico with the goal of giving back to the communities they recruited from, and this year, they did it again. The goal of the trip was to renovate one local’s home over the course of a week, and the team consulted with the Municipality of Humacao and the Puerto Rican governor’s office to make it happen. But as the nine-day February trip got closer, some of Hardinger’s contacts on the island began asking for more help. In addition to renovating Juanito Borques’ two-story home in Humacao, the 15-person group collaborated with Convoy of Hope to organize a community outreach event that handed out food and supplies to more than 200 locals; it enlisted the help of CoxHealth to donate nearly $10,000 of medical supplies to the makeshift hospital on the island of Vieques; and it partnered with Profesa, a Puerto Rican professional group based out of Florida, and a manufacturer called Sashco to donate 84 gallons of sealant to repair roofs.

The to-do list was hefty, but to Hardinger, it was critical—having been to San Juan and Humacao before, Hardinger knew firsthand the level of need. To be as efficient as possible, Hardinger enlisted the help of one of the chamber’s members, a labor union called Laborers Local 663, whose sole focus was renovating Borques’ home, while she focused on the rest.

Puerto Rico - New Exterior - By Clayton Baumgarth

Photos by Clayton Baumgarth
LEFT: The Exterior of the Borques' home, still in disrepair from Hurricane Maria. RIGHT: By the end of the trip, Borques' home had a fresh coat of paint and was once again livable.

Two months before the trip, the team flew out with a small group of the laborers to evaluate what needed to be done. The project was ambitious—Borques’ home was in critical condition. Its foundation was strong, but the interior’s wood paneling had mold; dried mud caked the exterior and debris from the hurricane was still heaped in the backyard. The kitchen was in the worst shape—all the appliances were rusted and hadn’t been usable in the 17 months since the hurricane.

The tiling in the kitchen needed to be replaced, as well as in two bathrooms, as did the furniture in the living room and bedroom. After the hurricane, Borques says he didn’t have enough money to replace the majority of his items, and the rest had sentimental value, which made it difficult for Borques to throw anything away. For the last two years, he slept on the same mattress that was ruined in the hurricane, and he continued to use the same waterlogged furniture. He cooked in his neighbor’s house since his kitchen was in complete disrepair.

Juanito Borques' home before
Photos by Clayton BaumgarthLiving room before
Juanito Borques' home after
Photos by Clayton BaumgarthLiving room after
Juanito Borques' home before
Photos by Clayton BaumgarthKitchen before
Juanito Borques' home after
Photos by Clayton BaumgarthKitchen after
Juanito Borques' home before
Photos by Clayton BaumgarthBedroom before
Juanito Borques' home after
Photos by Clayton BaumgarthBedroom after

By the end of the week, Hardinger and her team accomplished a small miracle. The house, though not perfect, was livable again. Both the exterior of the house and every room were given a fresh coat of paint, the kitchen was outfitted with new flooring and appliances as well as a table and chair set. Borques also received new living furniture and a television, as well as a new bedroom set. On the last day of the trip, the team prayed with an emotional Borques, who was later surprised with a hot water heater.

“The service trips have been eye-opening as we get to see another side of Puerto Rico, experience how people live and how they have survived so many hardships in recent years,” Hardinger says. “What we are doing is quite simple—we ask what we can do to help, use our resources to make that happen, then come ‘as we are’ and work.”

“What we are doing is quite simple—we ask what we can do to help, use our resources to make that happen, then come ‘as we are’ and work.”
— Heather Hardinger

Trips like these strengthen the relationship between Puerto Rican entities and the Branson chamber, which in turn helps local businesses find a much-needed workforce. Before the program’s launch, local employers were working with the H-2B program, which, according to the Department of Labor’s (DOL) website, “permits employers to temporarily hire nonimmigrants to perform nonagricultural labor or services in the United States.” Each year, the DOL puts a cap on the number of visas. When that happened in 2017, Hardinger and her team came up with a program that allows local businesses to recruit talent in Puerto Rico.

“Our Puerto Rico recruitment efforts were the result of some out-of-the-box thinking on behalf of myself and others from the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Taney County Partnership,” Hardinger said in an email. “We began that effort out of a response to challenges employers were having securing workers through the H-2B program.”

Since March 2017, Hardinger has worked with state and federal leaders to make sure the program is legal, ethical and in favor of all parties involved. She also works closely with Carlos Román, Assistant Deputy Administrator for Employment Services for Puerto Rico’s Department of Labor and Human Resources. Because Puerto Rico is a United States territory, its people are U.S. citizens and thus must be considered before hiring immigrant workers.

Branson members of the Puerto Rico Talent Attraction Program
Photo by Clayton BaumgarthJeff Seifried and the Branson team had a long list of items that needed repair at Borques' home. But they showed up each day to work and got it all done.

Hardinger and president Jeff Seifried, along with Jonas Arjes, executive vice president and chief economic development officer, began coordinating recruitment trips in 2017 and have since been to the island nearly 20 times. Their efforts are paying off. A large portion of Branson’s business climate includes the entertainment, hospitality and health care industries, which are all sectors that rely heavily on a number of seasonal workers. In just the last three years, more than 20 Branson businesses including Big Cedar Lodge, CoxHealth, Silver Dollar City, Hiltons of Branson and Lodge of the Ozarks have been authorized to recruit in Puerto Rico. They have all taken advantage of the program to find much-needed talent during peak seasons. The streamlined process Hardinger has created, in addition to developed tactics employed by some of Branson’s local businesses, create a work experience that’s both enjoyable and reputable.

The process of becoming authorized to take advantage of the program takes about four to six weeks. In addition to completing the necessary paperwork, each employer is required to have housing selected for workers coming over from Puerto Rico, which needs to be inspected by a local, state or county entity. Not only that, but Hardinger says employers are also required to pay for the inbound flight from Puerto Rico and refund other travel expenses related to the trip. In addition, some companies offer other perks to capitalize on the experience, which Hardinger says might include signing bonuses, paying for housing deposits and offering raises.

Part of these efforts, like securing housing and paying for travel expenses, are required, and others, like offering bonuses and raises, are not. According to Hardinger, she’s there to make sure employers are following the laws when it comes to recruitment and minimum wages. And through initiatives like hosting Hispanic Workforce Coalition events through the chamber, the Branson community demonstrates a well-rounded approach to making these temporary workers feel welcomed and appreciated.

Though COVID-19 has temporarily halted recruiting efforts, Hardinger is sure they will eventually continue, and in a way that is helpful and as easy as possible for all parties involved.

“We will continue to support recruitment from Puerto Rico as long as it is beneficial to our partners and the people of Puerto Rico,” Hardinger says. “We were not the first to recruit from Puerto Rico by a long shot. But the way we have recruited and the standards we have maintained with our participating employers has been groundbreaking. Hopefully we can continue this effort and expand our offerings in the years to come.”