Crackdown CouldTrigger Gap in Labor, Workers Say

By Yvette Armendariz and Mary Jo Pitzl
The Arizona Republic

February 26, 2006

Employers are not the only ones concerned about the effects of any crackdown on undocumented workers. Some employees also worry that lower-paid jobs will go unfilled, at least temporarily.

In Arizona, construction, restaurant, agriculture and hotel industries rely on immigrant labor, including undocumented workers.

One study by Thunderbird, the Garvin School of International Management estimated 12 percent of Arizona's workforce in 2000 consisted of undocumented Mexicans. Indications are that the numbers could be higher today as groups such as the Pew Hispanic Center point out at least 500,000 undocumented people are living in Arizona.

In the meantime, many of those industries that depend on immigrant workers are facing worker shortages.

Arizona businesses are projected to create about 195,000 jobs in the two years ending in 2006. That's a 7.7 percent jump from the estimated job base in 2004. The biggest jump is in construction jobs, up an estimated 12.3 percent. Jobs in food preparation are expected to show higher-than-average growth, too.

A crackdown could mean a worker shortage. While that may provide support for an expanded guest-worker program, some employees take a more basic view.

"We'd be screwed," said Bryan Helm, who works for Whitfill Nursery.

Although Helm, a Phoenix native, said he has no idea how many, if any, of his colleagues are in the country undocumented, he suspects a crackdown severely would limit the overall landscape workforce.

Most likely hurt by employer sanctions include jobs in restaurants, construction, grounds maintenance and other labor-intensive, lower-paid positions. Usual pay is $7 to $11 an hour, and employers have difficulty finding enough documented workers.

Some say that any crackdown could mean that Hispanic workers, particularly those with dark skin and heavy accents, would be harassed about their right to work.

"It's just going to create more problems," said Roberto Aragon, 38, a naturalized citizen who works for an auto-service company. "People without food will do anything to survive."

Landscaper Sergio Torres, originally from Jalisco, Mexico, suspects a crackdown initially may scare away some construction and landscape workers where the number of jobs often exceeds the number of willing workers.

Many are harassed about the ability to work because of skin color, Torres said. Another law could intimidate immigrants from seeking jobs where they are noticed, such as construction.

"I'd guess some 50 percent of the Latin people (in construction) don't have papers to work," Torres said.

One stucco mason, who asked not to be identified for fear of being targeted, suspects a quarter of the staff is undocumented. Still, those workers are much needed just to keep up with the demand.

A recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center estimates immigrant labor had increased by 914,000, to 10.1 million workers, in 2004. The largest segments are going after jobs in construction, food and lodging, and business services. U.S. born Hispanics, meanwhile, increasingly are going after jobs in hospitals and wholesale/retail.

According to a recent public-opinion poll, most Arizonans agree employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers should face penalties.

A few people expect little to change, though.

"I have neighbors that don't have papers. They are working," said Sebastian Mata Villanueva, a retired landscaper from Gilbert, speaking in his preferred Spanish. Villanueva became a citizen in 1987, he said.

"They have families to care for," which leads immigrants to take a risk finding a job, he said. He added that employers need them, especially in labor-intensive, lower-paying jobs not sought out by Americans.

Aragon said he believes the effort to pass state laws keeping immigrants from working won't fix the immigration issue. Instead, it will just punish hard workers.

"Latin people are going to feel betrayed," he said, "and it's going to affect a lot of people who rely on cheap labor."

What's needed is a guest-worker program, so that people from Mexico can come to work the jobs Americans don't want, Aragon said.

Requirements 'for everybody'

The prospect of getting hit with fines for hiring undocumented workers doesn't faze Marty Thompson.

The vice president of human resources for Bar-S Foods Co., Thompson is confident his 1,700-strong workforce is legal. He has the paperwork to prove it, too.

Since 2000, the Phoenix-based company has been using the Basic Pilot Program, run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, to check the employment eligibility of its new hires.

Today, the program finds problems with about 10 percent of the Bar-S hires, who then have to have their documents checked.

Most of those problems are because of name changes that individuals failed to report to the Social Security Administration, or problems with compound last names, Thompson said. Problems that can be remedied easily.

It wasn't always so. In the early going, Bar-S would raise questions about an employee's documents, and, nine times out of 10, the individual wouldn't return to iron out the matter.

"I have a good idea why," Thompson said, since he suspects they were undocumented and realized they could get a job effortlessly at another packing house in Oklahoma, where Bar-S has the bulk of its workforce.

It's getting tougher to find documented workers since the word is out that Bar-S verifies employment status. This narrows the company's employment pool, and many of those qualified to work don't want to, he said.

"The Number 1 reason we can't get people, the Number 1 reason we're going offshore is people don't show up every day, on time," Thompson said. "You tell me what that's all about."

Thompson is no fan of mandating new rules on employers.

But the Basic Pilot Program is a quick, easy way to ensure a documented workforce.

Thompson said he thinks that if policymakers are of a mind to require the program, they shouldn't stop at employers.

Mortgage brokers, bankers, automobile-finance shops and anyone else who deals with activities that move the economy should be required to run the simple check.

"The only way to do this is to have everybody play," he said.

Loopholes disturb cattleman

Norm Hinz spends his time riding herd on the 164,000 head of cattle in his feedlots.

He doesn't have time to ride herd on the legality of his employees' Social Security numbers.

Nor should he, said Hinz, general manager of Pinal Feeding Co.

"Sometimes, I think we're trying to cure the symptoms and not the disease," Hinz said.

Better to button down the border and work with employers on plugging the loopholes that everyone knows are exploited to get workers, he said.

With years of experience in the agricultural sector, Hinz sees the need for a guest-worker program.

"Maybe we could form some sort of union with Mexico to work together a little more closely," he said.

Hinz, who is president of the Arizona Cattle Feeders Association, said that attempts by Arizona lawmakers to make employers accountable for their hires' documented status are shortsighted and ignore the national scope of the issue of undocumented immigration.

Besides, it makes little sense to try to rid Arizona's employment rolls of every worker who may be in this country without papers, he said. Taking away jobs may lead to unintended problems.

"I don't think it means they'd go home," Hinz said. "I don't think they'd stop working. It'll just go underground."

Hinz said he's confident his staff of 150 is legally authorized to work.

He helped some of his workers get citizenship when amnesty was last offered in 1987-88. Those people still are working for him, he said.

"We've installed quite a few incentives for them," he said of his long-tenured staff.

Bonus pay, profit sharing and employer-paid health care have helped keep his staff on board for years.

Browniemaker follows rules

Kimberly Silva recently posted an entry-level baker's job for $10 an hour. The pay is better than the $8 to $8.50 most entry-level bakers are getting these days in the Valley, she said, but she's still having trouble filling the job.

"We can't get people down to apply," said Silva, operations team leader for Chandler-based Fairytale Brownies.

Just one application has come in two weeks, she said.

The company, however, doesn't budge from its policy of checking numbers on Social Security cards, as well as verifying birth dates and names.

"It's above and beyond the I-9 document check," Silva said. "And we still run into problems. . . . It never prevents someone with a stolen identity from getting through."

She reports terminating the jobs of a few good team members after the company learned they weren't who they said they were.

Sometimes, a year or more can pass before someone complains that his or her identity is being used by an immigrant unable to work legally. That's because the owner of the identity doesn't know it is being used by another person until he or she sees a Social Security earnings report and it doesn't match information on a paycheck.

And sometimes job offers, made on a contingent basis, have to be withdrawn because identification needed to work legally cannot be validated.

"We are very strict on what we check, and we've lost people," she said.

The company that bakes brownies, known by the purple packaging, gets a lot of seasonal workers close to the holidays when orders go up. Employment fluctuates. Currently, the company has 33 employees, but that figure will rise as high as 90 during the peak of holiday business.

"It's getting tougher and tougher to get the staff we need," Silva said, "and to keep good staff."

Silva is hopeful a guest-worker program can be implemented. For now, she has to price jobs higher than other kitchen positions in hopes of attracting legal workers.

Fines for knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants exist on the federal level. So she's not sure whether state sanctions will make a difference in how Valley employers hire.

"It's not going to eliminate the problem. It's too widespread," Silva said.

"I don't know if some of these companies will pay the fines. They need the workers. For us, we couldn't afford to pay fine after fine after fine, and we don't want to break the law."

Employees screened carefully

Ron Busby deals with heavy turnover and constant churn in his workforce, so he welcomes the idea of a requirement to check the employment eligibility of his hires.

Such an upfront screening may create more stability in his 90-member staff, said Busby, president of American Janitorial Services.

He has one caveat: Make the state run the employment checks, not the employer.

As operator of a business that hires low-wage workers, Busby is familiar with the winks and nods employers use to skirt employment law.

"We're not kidding ourselves," he said of the federal requirements his firm follows when hiring new workers.

"We don't know if the Social Security number and the picture ID they give us is real, but that's all we can do."

Actually, American Janitorial runs background checks on potential hires, and that company verifies Social Security numbers through a telephone check, said Howard Hunter, president of Select Information Services, a Glendale business. If a hire's name and Social Security number don't match, the firm gives that information to the employer.

Busby said a state-run eligibility screening would be a boon.

"If the state took that over, at least it would level the playing field and lower my costs," Busby said.

Although his staffing remains level at 90 people, Busby said his firm processes many times more than that. Last year, he hired 700 people, many of whom either didn't pass a background check or who left after just a few days' employment.

If state officials get zealous about weeding out undocumented workers, Busby warned, they need to face the reality of where America gets its low-wage workforce.

"I don't have people walking in my door saying, 'I want a job,' " Busby said.

He pays $6.75 to $7 an hour for janitorial jobs.

Without willing low-wage workers in his industry, Busby said, he and his competitors would be forced to raise rates. And, he said, he doesn't know if they could attract customers at higher rates. For reasons such as this, Busby said, he favors a guest-worker program.