One of the signs of the impending summer in my neighborhood is the multitude of landscaping trucks that line the streets for post-winter clean-up services. May is a big month for events – Mother’s Day, graduations, communions and confirmations – and hosting at home is one way to save money on a celebration, so many people wait for this seasonal clean-up somewhat anxiously. This year, however, they waited and waited. In some cases, winter clean-up occurred later than expected; and for others it didn’t happen at all. The landscaping companies who did show up reported a labor shortage. In an industry that relies heavily on immigrant and seasonal labor, the repercussions of changes to immigration policies are being felt in real time. This story is echoed across the United States as businesses and consumers in many industries face the reality of the impact that immigrants have on the job market.
A major point of the current government administration’s immigration platform has been that immigrants are taking jobs that should go to native-born Americans. This has been extended to workers who were previously covered by guest worker visas; technically these workers are considered non-immigrants, so this is actually a much broader accusation. This statement covers undocumented immigrants, documented immigrants who do not hold status, and non-immigrants who are only here to work. The concern can be reframed more generally to say that the opposition is framed around the premise that non-native born workers taking jobs from native-born workers. Upon closer examination this claim has been disproved many times over. But it has also revealed something else: there has not been a rush by native-born Americans to take the jobs vacated by visa terminations, deportations and general fear. What are these jobs that native-born Americans will not do?
Americans place a premium on their lawns. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2017 New York was fourth overall in employment levels for landscapers with 45,720 recorded employees receiving an average salary of $33,000. The NY-metro area reported the highest concentration of landscapers in the country. What this data doesn’t tell us is that “on-the-books” employees are often supplemented by seasonal workers. Many business were obtaining temporary workers to help fill the demand for these months through the H2-B visa program, however, changes to the visa program in 2017 made it difficult to get these workers. Visas have been capped at 66,000 for the year – which means that only 33,000 visas are issued for the summer – and workers from previous years are no longer excluded from the quota. And where the filing system used to be first come-first served, the visas are now distributed on a lottery. The result is that some business are set for their season in May as expected and others are struggling to meet demand in June. The Department of Homeland Security did release an additional 15,000 visas this year due to emergency petitions, but overall this is a situation that some businesses may not be able to recover from.
Ronda Fox of All Seasons Landscaping in Colorado is navigating these hurdles firsthand. She was able to secure visas in the second release, but her employees won’t be on the ground immediately, and she’s losing time in her busiest season. Hiring locally doesn’t seem to be an option. Fox is facing a low unemployment rate coupled with a relatively high proportion of college graduates in her area of Colorado. She placed a $5,000 ad for applicants and didn’t receive a single call. In Pennsylvania, Rich Barna was unable to secure visas for any of the 15 employees he normally calls up from Mexico to supplement his 15 full time American workers. He posted the job opportunity as required, but has received no inquiries from native-born Americans. He expects he’ll have to turn down work.
In multiple industries, employers are reporting issues attracting workers despite raising wages and the concern looms that if they raise wages beyond a certain threshold, they will need to pass the costs on to consumers or they won’t be able to maintain the business. For example, in 2017 the LA Times presented a robust look on the state of labor for California farms. Larger farms are offering attractive employment packages including higher wages and benefits like 401k plans, health insurance, paid vacation, holidays and sick days, and subsidized housing and ESL classes. It’s not enough. Silvarado Farming raised the starting wage for farm hands to $14.50/hour and was willing to go up to $16/hour but still had trouble attracting workers. The implications are that farming in this region will have to change if the industry is to survive. Farmers will need to make decisions about whether to change the produce they grow, abandon operations in the US and move them abroad, continue to rely on the temporary visa system and trust that they might be successful in the visa lottery, or replace workers with machines.
Smaller farms or farms that aren’t growing high-value crops like grapes or avocados are looking toward mechanization, downsizing, or less labor intensive crops. Faced with stiff competition from larger farms, Jeff Klein ripped out 113,000 Chardonnay grapevines that covered his land. In 2013 he had a crew of 100 workers and wineries were paying $700/ton of grapes. Klein was able to make a profit paying his employees the minimum wage of $8/hr. In 2016, his grapes sold for only $350/ton, and he saw his labor force reduced to about 45 employees. He’s been out-competed by the subsidies offered by larger farms. In October 2017, he began the process of replacing what remains of his grapes with almonds and olives, which he can maintain with fewer employees. Another farmer is exploring mechanizing his farm. Brad Goehring is changing the way he plants his vineyards to allow for mechanical pruning and maintenance. He believes he can reduce his workforce by 85% if successful. And if not, he will also look for a new crop–an almond farm could be managed by three employees.
What is striking about the stories from New York to Pennsylvania to Colorado to California (and everywhere in between) is that they emphasize that despite higher wages, employers not seeing an influx of native-born Americans lining up to take the positions vacated by stresses on the immigration pool. This runs counter to the theories put forth by Harvard economist George Borjas, who has maintained that employers have reaped the benefit of having access to a large pool of low-skilled workers while American workers have suffered because there is more competition for lower pay. But native-born Americans are not avoiding work on farms and landscaping companies because the pay is too low – they’re avoiding work they find undesirable. The work is hard: it may mean working in extreme heat or cold, requiring physical labor that takes a toll on a human body. It’s also seasonal so workers will not work for long periods of time. These factors contribute to Goehring’s insistence that even at $20/hr he has trouble getting native-born workers to come back after lunch.
The Pew Research Center reports that in 2014, the American workforce was comprised of 133 million native-born workers (83% of the total workforce), 19.5 million lawful immigrant works (12%), and 8 million unauthorized immigrant workers (5%). While the number of native-born members of the workforce and lawful immigrant workers increased from 2009-2014, the number of unauthorized workers did not. The reason unauthorized workers make up a larger share of the labor force (5%) in comparison to the total population (3.5%) is because they are more likely to be of working age: 92% are between the ages of 18-64 compared with 60% of the native-born population. Within this group, males are more likely to be looking for work than either native-born or lawful immigrants.
Unauthorized immigrant workers are concentrated in agriculture (17%), construction (13%), and leisure and hospitality (9%). They also represent about 22% of the business and other services sector, which includes legal services, landscaping, waste management, and personal services (e.g., dry cleaners, manicurists, and car washers). By occupation, they hold a higher share of farming jobs (26%) when compared to their share of the workforce, and a lower share of maintenance, management, professional, sales and office support jobs.
The dissonance between the administration’s stance and the reported experiences of employers who rely on an immigrant workforce stems from an assumption that similarly educated native-born and non-native workers are pursuing the same jobs. A study from the Urban Institute of 16 million workers in the United States without a high school diploma revealed that immigrants and native-born workers actually do very different jobs. In fact, they are more dissimilar than workers at other educational levels.
The reason for this is rooted in experience. Immigrants may have limited English language or technical skills, which can limit their access to certain jobs. They may have an insufficient understanding of the workplace or lack state licensing. These factors are advantageous to native-born Americans. On the other hand, bilingualism can help in some cases, as well as a proficiency in manual skills. These skills can be beneficial to immigrants.
These experiences and skills are reflected back to us in the data: when compared with native-born workers, unauthorized immigrant workers are more likely to work in service and construction industries. Native-born workers are overrepresented in customer service and front-of-house staff in food service. The data reveals an important point: there is no singular industry or job where unauthorized immigrant workers are a majority. They are outnumbered by native-born workers when you consider the totality of the data.
Critics of the H2-B visa limitations say that this opens the door for fraud and exploitation of un-documented immigrants. The Swift & Co. meat processing plant in Cactus, Texas reported seeing an increase in falsified documents and borrowed social security numbers as a result of a ICE raid in 2006 that stripped the plant of its workforce. They had offered incentives for referrals – and despite the gruesome nature of the work, it’s one of the better paying jobs in the region, making it attractive to anyone who can secure a spot.
There is a secondary learning from the Swift & Co. story: this work has always been held by immigrant groups. Germans, Irish, and Eastern Europeans took butchering jobs in Chicago in the 19th-century. Wage growth in this industry peaked with the growth of unions between the 1930s and 1970s, but wages fell again as these businesses moved away from cities and away from union labor. Swift & Co. survived the raid by finding other foreign groups to take the work – and town residents themselves perceive this work as falling to immigrants, beginning with the Vietnamese and Laotians who arrived in Cactus shortly after the plant opened in the 1970s.
To change what the workforce looks like will require a cultural shift in the value we place in employment and services, leisure and lifestyle, and people. We have a perception about what work is and who should do it. The jobs that immigrants do are heavily rooted in service. How much are people willing to pay someone to cut their grass or pick their produce or clean up after guests or butcher meat in a plant environment? The answer is not as much as it might take to attract a more skilled or more educated workforce. A more introspective analysis may lead us to question who we are willing to pay to do this kind of work, and why.
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