When The Minority Becomes The Majority

By Hol Wagner | September 28, 2010

All this talk about recruiting "minorities" to fill the many job openings in construction is somewhat academic in the West, where one of those so-called minority groups, Latinos or Hispanics, actually constitutes a population majority in several states and even more metropolitan areas. And Latinos are already a majority of the construction workforce is several trades, especially drywall and concrete flatwork.

Even in regions and cities traditionally shy on minority populations, the picture has changed in the past few years, particularly in areas with strong economies. Consider this example from southern Utah's St. George, seat of Washington County, as reported by the Salt Lake Tribune on Sept. 3:

"Subcontractor [Jason] Phillips recalls that when he moved to St. George in 1990 and started in construction, he worked with mostly white laborers.

"Nowadays, construction sites of homes, schools and stores are filled with Latino workers speaking mostly Spanish. They build wooden frames, apply stucco, pour concrete, and install lawns.

"Scott Hirschi, the director of Washington County's economic development council, has some 45 years of experience on construction sites in the area. He says he as seen a 'dramatic change' on such sites in the past decade with the increase of Latino workers.

"Hirschi, business owners and other local officials generally agree that the region would not have grown as it has without immigrant labor. But they also point out that they can't assume that just because people are Latino and speak Spanish, they are undocumented workers."

St. George and Washington County, though an extreme example, are still fairly typical. Among the statistics the news story relates: "With a growth spurt of 40 percent, St. George was recently named by the Census Bureau as the fastest-growing U.S. metro area between 2000 and 2006. In roughly that same span — from 2000 to 2005 — single-family home permits nearly tripled, from about 1,200 to 3,500 a year ...

"The county's Latino population increased more than 800 percent between 1990 and 2005 — from 862 Hispanics to roughly 8,000, according to the U.S. Census. In 2000, about 45 percent of them worked in maintenance, construction or production ... Of the Latinos in the county today, a 'low-end' estimate is that about 35 percent are undocumented workers in the area. Some undocumented Latino construction workers believe between 65 percent and 80 percent of their peers don't have proper U.S. documentation to work here."

Immigration Reform

And therein lies the problem. With immigration reform one of the hottest topics in the political arena today, movement has finally begun in the effort to ensure that the flood of Latino workers entering and already in this country have proper documentation. Arizona and Colorado both passed laws this year cracking down on employers who knowingly hire illegal or undocumented workers, but the Arizona law is being challenged as too strict by an alliance that includes the Arizona Contractors Association and the American Subcontractors Association of Arizona. The Arizona law stipulates that any company knowingly or intentionally hiring an illegal alien could face revocation of its business license.

The Colorado law impacts only contracts with state agencies or political subdivisions and modifies an existing state law on the use of the federal Department of Homeland Security's Basic Pilot Program to determine employment eligibility, requiring contractors to use the program "to confirm the employment eligibility of all employees who are newly hired for employment in the United States."

The Rules Keep Changing

In August, the Bush administration announced several changes in the way the Department of Homeland Security will enforce federal immigration hiring rules, with the burden increasingly being shifted to the hiring contractor. Most significant among the changes, Denver immigration attorney Ann Allott told members of the Colorado Contractors Association, "is the clarification issued on 'No-Match' letters and the responsibilities of employers who receive notice that employees' names and corresponding Social Security numbers do not match the records at the Social Security Administration. If you, as an employer, receive a 'No-Match' letter, you now must immediately meet with the employee, explain that the Social Security number they provided you does not match with the SSA, and request that they immediately correct the situation. If you are not provided with a correctly matching Social Security number within 90 days, you must terminate the employment of that individual." Fines for failure to comply are raised, with the average fine now $1,000 for each occurrence.

The changes were to become effective Sept. 14, but in early September, in response to a lawsuit by the AFL-CIO, the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, a federal district court judge in California issued a stay temporarily blocking implementation.

And so the question of who contractors can safely and legally recruit and hire for construction work remains unanswered, and quite possibly, unanswerable from a practical standpoint.