News Column

Undocumented Workers Necessary for Some Industries

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Charles Grimes' business has employed illegal immigrants before.

He makes no apologies.

"We wouldn't really probably get the work done if we didn't have illegals over here working," he said.

He described it as the nature of the business, explaining his industry -- roofing -- wouldn't get business if it didn't have illegal immigrants here to provide labor.

Grimes owns Raintree Roofing Inc., which does business in Odessa and Midland. He has been in the business since 1991 and has around eight employees.

He said roofing has slowed in the area, but this year has started off a little better than last year.

"I didn't even draw a salary last year and broke even for the year, so roofers have gone other places to find work," he said. "I'm down to one crew and doing a roof, starting one (recently) here in Midland. I'm lucky to do a roof once a week."

A few years ago, all of his employees were legally allowed to work here. But this year, he has three employees who are not legal and lack documentation. He seems to worry about the matter, because one renter threatened to call immigration because she thought some illegal immigrants were working there.

"I've never had immigration check any job that I've done in the past 20 years," he said. "The fact that immigration (officials) may or may not come out there to this particular house because a renter calls them -- I don't know what the situation might be. But the threat of immigration coming out there has caused my guys to leave the job.

"I could go to another crew, but you really don't start one roof and then hire a different crew to come finish it," he said. "So that crew will somehow or another manage to find some help that will come finish it up under their direction, under their supervision."

Grimes hires a crew leader, who then hires his own people.

"That's pretty standard in the roofing industry in Midland-Odessa, unless you're in the commercial area, and then the commercial roofers tend to have paid, by-the-hour type people working for them," he said.

Grimes never knows whether his crew members are legal or illegal. He said his crew leader told him that a few workers would not stay if immigration officials paid a visit.

"Right now, there's just not enough to work to make sure that you've got guys who are all legal," Grimes said.

Grimes said when he started in the business, he had Anglos as crew members. Nowadays, for the last 15 years, he has only one or two Anglos who have been crew members. The rest have been Hispanic.

Grimes said someone told him immigration officials visited a street one time and "hauled off 30 or 40 people on her street" in one day.

Asking companies about their hiring practices or even talking about immigration reform with them can be a difficult endeavor. The OA contacted several businesses -- including building and roofing contractors and house-cleaning services -- that did not respond to repeated messages.

Greg Masters, general manager of Odessa Babbitt Bearing Co., said his business employs about 17 people and has been affected by a shortage of employees because of the oil boom.

He doesn't think immigration reform would affect his company.

"Our positions are all highly skilled labor," he said.

Those people who do come to his company already have the experience and background.

"They already do (have those qualifications) or if it's someone we're going to train, we screen them pretty closely," he said. "We don't want to invest the time in them to teach them a lot about our (specific) machines if it's not going to be someone that's going to pay off."

Anyone who comes to Babbitt must possess full citizenship, and the company does drug testing. A prospective employee can work at the company with a green card, but Masters said he has not faced that situation.

"If you have a work visa or a green card, you're OK," he said. "We're not opposed to (those work permits) at all, if they did have it. It's just in our particular instance, we haven't run into that."

Rigo Manriquez, owner of the Osaka Japanese Steakhouse and Seafood in Odessa, said he hopes to see immigration reform, especially in this area where there's not enough people to work. He said restaurants feel the most impact of the lack of labor pool because of the wage scale.

Manriquez said he hopes lawmakers can come up with an agreement so that people who come here to work can contribute to the economy. His business is short of people right now.

"My friends in the restaurant (business) are having this problem right now, that we don't have enough people to work," he said.

Tim Counts, a spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services based in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., said in a telephone interview that the amount of time it takes to get clearance to work here depends on the status desired -- someone who wants to come here specifically to work or someone who wants to immigrate here permanently and has a right to work.

"Anyone who immigrates here permanently is eligible to work," he said.

But exceptions exist, such as some government jobs in which a person has to be a U.S. citizen, including Transportation Security Administration screener, Counts said.

"But for the most part, jobs are open to green card holders," he said, referring to people who may live and work here on a permanent basis. "Then there are two kinds of broad-type categories of work-type visas. One is called immigrant visa, which leads to a green card, and the other is what's called non-immigrant visa, which is essentially a temporary work permit."

He said there exist 21 types of non-immigrant or temporary type visas -- which cover jobs such as registered nurses, agricultural workers and foreign media representatives -- and around six broad types of permanent work visas.

"They all have different qualifications and different time frames as far as how long it takes to get the work permit associated with the visa type," he said. "Of course, all of these depend on whether or not you qualify for such a visa."

He said more information on the matter of "Working in the United States" could be found on www.uscis.gov.

Since 1986, American employers are required to establish the identity of new-hires and whether they are eligible to work, and that is done primarily through a Form I-9, Counts said.

"Any new employee has to show documents or a combination of documents to their employer that, first of all, is an identity document, and second of all, a document that shows they're eligible to work in the United States. Sometimes, one document satisfies both requirements; sometimes, it's two separate documents."

For example, U.S. passports are available only to American citizens, and they are eligible to work because of that document, which establishes both identity and work eligibility. The most common of citizenship documents are driver license (identity) and a Social Security card (work eligibility), but there are a whole list of other documents that can be presented instead of those particular documents, Counts said.

If a person is not eligible to work, the employer may not hire that person, and for employers who knowingly hire people are not authorized to work, they can face monetary fines up to prison time for violating laws, Counts said.

He said employers are not required to report someone who does not possess work authorization documents.

"It may just mean they don't have the right documentation with them," he said. "But they are required to establish both work eligibility and identity based on documents presented by the employee."

Roy Gillean, owner of The Barn Door Steakhouse in Odessa, said he hopes some changes are coming in immigration laws, pointing out the legislation that is being worked on in Washington, D.C.

New laws could help the restaurant industry.

"For me, it would be great to have more employees, because with the oil business the way it is in the Permian Basin, we're so short staffed," he said, adding that if "we can figure out a good way to allow great people who want to work and pay taxes in Texas, then I think that's a good thing for us right now."

Gillean said his restaurant employees advise prospective workers to have the proper documentation to work at The Barn Door.

"If they don't have those (documents), then we have to have the other things that are on the I-9," he said. "We check it, obviously, before we let them come to work."

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(c)2013 the Odessa American (Odessa, Texas)

Visit the Odessa American (Odessa, Texas) at www.oaoa.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services



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