Relying on immigrants
The hospitality, construction and agriculture sectors, which employ many immigrants in Florida, struggle to find enough workers. FLORIDA TREND asked representatives of those three sectors about their hiring needs and suggestions for immigration law reform.
Bill Truex, President, Florida Home Builders Association
Bill Truex says Florida construction companies simply can’t find enough U.S.-born workers. Young Americans, he says, are steered relentlessly toward four-year college programs and don’t realize the wages and satisfaction they could find with a skilled trade. “There’s been a generation of Floridians who have been left behind when it comes to being educated about their opportunities in the workforce in the construction industry,” he says.
The association and the industry back a proposal by U.S. Rep Lloyd Smucker of Pennsylvania, cosponsored by U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney of Naples, to allow a year-round, non-farm guest-worker program for jobs in industries that don’t require a college degree. Companies would be required to use E-Verify, and there would be other protections to keep U.S. citizens from being pushed aside by foreign workers.
Meanwhile, beginning in Central Florida, the Florida Home Builders Association is working with the Hispanic Chamber, Latino Leadership, Habitat for Humanity and others to train Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, displaced by Hurricane Maria to work in construction. “A win-win for everybody,” says Shelley Stewart, an association second vice president and president of Southern Title Holding in Central Florida.
The association also is working to boost interest among young Floridians in careers in construction, hoping it fills the pipeline for the future. But, Truex adds, “we need workers so desperately now.”
Mike Carlton, Labor Relations Director, Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association
“Unemployment is at very low levels, which has put even more pressure on the agriculture industry to attract a domestic workforce,” says Mike Carlton. “The biggest problem we don’t believe is the level of pay. The bigger problem has been that most jobs in agriculture are seasonal. They are outside, in Florida. It’s hot and dirty and difficult. That has essentially required agricultural producers to rely on a foreign-born workforce. Quite frankly, we much prefer to have a domestic workforce available to us.
“The industry is aware that some of our workforce is probably here falsely documented. We say that in generalities because we don’t know that for a fact because the documents that are presented to us are very, very legitimate looking and we have to accept those documents when we fill out the I-9 (federal employment eligibility verification) forms.”
Stronger border and workplace enforcement is pushing down the numbers of the undocumented working in Florida agriculture, Carlton says. As evidence, he notes the rise in the use of the H2A seasonal guest-worker program for agriculture. In 2010, 4,500 people came to Florida under the agricultural guest-worker program. In 2017, the number reached 25,000, he says.
Carlton says the flawed, antiquated and expensive program requires workers to be sponsored by a U.S. employer, be paid at least $11.29 per hour so as not to hurt the domestic U.S. workforce and return home after working. Growers have to deal with several governmental agencies that sometimes respond so slowly that crops rot in the fields for want of harvest workers, he says. One big problem with the program is that workers can stay only 10 months. Florida sees a surge in need during harvest but has plenty of jobs that require year-round workers. “The program we have is a program that works, but it’s almost like a car works even though its gears grind. It works with much grinding of gears.”
Carol Dover, President/CEO, Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association
“We are desperately in need of workers,” says Carol Dover. “It doesn’t matter in our state if you’re in North Florida, Central Florida or South Florida. Our members are constantly telling me they have a labor force issue. If we’re short now, what are we going to do 10 years from now? Our growth is exploding. Growth comes with the pains of labor.
“It’s just not correct for people to believe immigrants are coming into this country and taking jobs from U.S. citizens. Even with the foreign workers we are fortunate to have, we don’t come close to having enough workers.”
The hospitality group is working with educators and youth to stimulate interest in industry careers.
It’s also seeking some immigration law changes.
“This industry, like a lot of other industries, wants a guest-worker program,” Dover says. “And for God’s sake, allow them to pay taxes without hiding. If we could just fix that one portion of it. We don’t have to give them a legal status, we have to give them a guest-worker status.”
Dover says an existing program allows too few workers in, limits their stay and requires them to return to their home countries for a time before returning. “What do you do with your facility when you send them all home and wait for them to come back? Let them stay here on the guest-workers program until such time as they change jobs, want to quit the job. I’ve had numerous employers tell me how painful it is. They’ve spent the time and money and effort to train them” and then have to send them back, she says.
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