Volume 41, Issue 9 - September 2006

Sweatin’ It Out
How the Pending Immigration Legislation will Affect Glass Companies
by Ellen Giard

“It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it.” Nationwide discussions and debates on the subject of immigration may be giving new meaning to that phrase. An estimated 12 million illegal immigrants are in the United States, and many are working in low-paying, unskilled jobs, a good percentage of which are in construction and manufacturing capacities. Ask yourself this: if they were not here, who would be doing those jobs? U.S. citizens aren’t lining up to do hard labor. With employment as low as it is now, it may just make you stop and think, who’s going to do that work if immigrants, legal or otherwise, can’t?

“It could destroy the economy if we lost that many workers,” says John Neunlist, president of Admiral Glass in Houston. “Here [in Houston] we depend on [an immigrant] population and I believe many in this area do as well.”

The Right to Work
To work legally in the United States all workers must provide the employer proper documentation, either a Social Security card or an I-9 form. Employers, however, can’t always tell whether the documentation is legitimate. 

Craftsman Fabricated Glass president Bob Lawrence says that precautions are taken to ensure all employees are properly documented there. 

“No matter their descent, every worker who has been with us for years is doing a great job. The toughest issue now is finding any number of good workers among the unemployed in our area,” says Lawrence. “With unemployment so low, it is more accurate to describe most unemployed as unemployable. So it is no wonder some business owners resort to undocumented employees.”

Jack Hoey, president of Coastal Glass Distributors in Charleston, S.C., says that while companies’ hiring unauthorized workers probably does happen quite frequently, his company doesn’t necessarily know if it is doing so.

“I think the vast majority of companies are in compliance with the law, meaning they have seen that the workers have valid paperwork. The problem is the paperwork is really easy to come by and not always valid.” He says there seems to be a misunderstanding by the public, that companies are simply hiring undocumented workers. “The more widespread problem is that their paperwork seems legitimate when it’s not,” says Hoey.

“We do a thorough check with all new employees and they, must provide the legal form of work papers,” adds Bob Price, director of sales with J.E.Berkowitz LLP in Westville, N.J.

Neunlist says there are probably more illegal workers in Houston than in other parts of the country further from the United States-Mexico border. “And all we can do is go by their credentials,” he says. “We can’t always tell if the documentation is false.”

Lawrence agrees that the number of undocumented workers in the area is increasing.

“Having grown up on the border in El Paso, Texas, it’s obvious to me that there is a huge number of people still making their way across our borders than what I would have perceived 40 or 50 years ago,” he says. 

Who’s Affected?
In the glass industry, responses were mixed as to which segment, manufacturing or glazing, employs the most undocumented workers.

“I think it is quite common on the manufacturing side for the glass industry to hire undocumented workers,” says Lyle Hill, president of Chicago-based glazing contractor MTH Industries. “In the South and in areas where there is little or no unionization, I don’t think it’s any more or less common for glass companies to do so than in any other industry.” Hill says that illegal workers are most likely in large, non-union, fabricating businesses. “I also think in the Southeast you’ll find them on jobsites in the field, particularly working on the jobs that require minimal skills.”

Hoey thinks immigrants mostly take on the jobs that don’t require skills such as reading and writing.

“They couldn’t be a driver, for example, because they don’t have the skills to handle the paperwork that’s involved with shipping, deliveries, etc.,” says Hoey. “Most work as helpers; not being able to read or interpret written word is a big handicap.” Like Hill, he agrees that most probably work in fabrication plants.

“Glaziers have fewer non-skilled positions,” he says, “So the crews have to have higher skill levels.”

Price thinks that there would be a greater rate of undocumented workers on job-sites. With regard to the glazing contractors, some may subcontract the erection or installation. In this case the glazing contractor would not know if undocumented workers are on site. “The concern is at a different level,” he says.

Some say that union contract companies are also less likely to employ undocumented workers compared to non-union companies. 

Jim Williams, general president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), says those working for a union company are required to sign an I-9 form. Non-union companies, he says, may not enforce this requirement as much as union companies. Regardless, he doesn’t see glazing companies employing undocumented workers as being that big of an issue.

“Fifty percent of the large jobs are being done by global companies now [and] more pre-fabricated work is coming in from China,” says Williams. Because products are pre-fabricated, he explains, glazing companies have a lesser need for field labor.

And, while immigrants from neighboring Mexico are drawing the most discussion of late, Price is quick to point out that not all undocumented workers who come to the United States are from Mexico and not all come here to do blue-collar jobs.

“You may have illegal workers in the office … engineers, in the drafting department, etc.,” says Price.

In fact, many who are educated come into the United States illegally from the Middle East, Asia and other worldwide locations.
“After 9/11 the immigration process froze up because no one wanted to [be blamed] as the one who was letting terrorists into the country,” says Hoey.

Political Matters
Last December the House of Representatives passed immigration reform bill H.R. 4437, titled the Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Reform Act. The bill has been the subject of much opposition from Latino organizations, as it calls for construction of a 700-mile-long security fence on the U.S.-Mexico border and would make illegal immigration a felony. In April hundreds of thousands of protestors organized a “national day of action for immigration justice.” Latin American workers across the country boycotted work to raise awareness and to show how important they are to the U.S. workforce.

“We had people not come to work one day,” says Hoey. “And I think that those who participated realized the whole thing backfired. We said to them, ‘If you’re trying to say how vulnerable we are [without you], we’ll take your word for it and [let you go].’”

Following that April protest, the Senate issued a counter bill to the House’s, this one titled S. 2611, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act (CIRA). This bill would also require construction of a security fence, but would create a tiered system for the nation’s undocumented workers, dividing them into three categories:

  • Those who have lived in the United States for at least five years (estimated by the National Association of Home Builders at about 7 million people total; 112,000 in the glass industry) [see chart on page 123] would be offered eventual legal residency without having to leave the country. They would be required to pass national security and criminal background checks and pay a fine and prove they have paid all federal and state taxes;
  • Illegal immigrants who have lived in the country for two to five years (approximately 3 million people total; USGlass estimates 48,000 in the glass industry), would have to travel to a U.S. border crossing and apply for a temporary work visa. They would be required to meet all stipulations for temporary workers (pass background checks and pay any taxes owed). They would be eligible for permanent residency and citizenship over time, and it is estimated it would take up to ten years to receive a green card under this program; and
  • Those here fewer than two years (estimated at approximately 1 million; estimated at 16,000 in the glass industry), would have to return to their countries of origin and apply for a temporary work visa from their home country, though they would not be guaranteed acceptance into the program.

President Bush appears to have the backing of much of the glass industry on this bill. 

“If a severe law is passed it will be disastrous for the country because it can’t be enforced, which will then cause disrespect for the law,” says Hoey. “Sometimes the law is flouted because it is unrealistic; it can’t be too rigid. This is their [Congress] chance to come up with something that is realistic.”

Price agrees. “The laws need to be refined and more palatable. We should not forget that the United States is a melting pot,” he says. “From the immigrants’ view point, they come here for the opportunity to enhance their own life.” 

Lawrence says there are undocumented workers who have, for many years, contributed to the system as hard, tax-paying workers (though still under false documentation) and who have assimilated into the workforce and proved to be good, productive, law-abiding “guests.” “Their reparation should be simple: pay a pre-determined fine, and make a serious effort to become a citizen of the United States. Once this group has accomplished steps necessary to become legal guest workers, they can stay permanently, however, no arrangements should be made for their extended families,” says Lawrence. His views differ, though, when it comes to undocumented people who have contributed little or nothing to the tax system. “Green cash workers, who have essentially stolen benefits that are paid for by the sweat of other Americans, no matter how many years here, should be deported without any further consideration,” he says. 

Bill S.2611 details a “guest worker program” that proposes a visa for temporary guest workers. This would allow employers to recruit non-citizen workers into the United States without violating the immigration policy. Labor unions and other similar groups are typically opposed to such programs saying they either displace American workers or drive wages down. S.2611, however, requires employers who want to recruit temporary guest workers in the construction and service industries to first offer the jobs, at the prevailing industry wage, to U.S. workers. Then, if no qualified U.S. workers apply for the jobs, the employer can hire guest workers, but must pay them the prevailing wage. 

Organization Support
This wage floor provision has been praised by the Building and Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO (BCTD), and also supported by IUPAT. Edward C. Sullivan, president of BCTD, issued a statement to the House of Representatives Committee on Education, saying “…a wage floor provision in this bill [S.2611] does not adversely affect the wages and living standards of American workers … it protects American workers by preventing employers from using foreign labor to depress wage rates for American workers and ensuring that employers will recruit American workers first for any open job.” Sullivan also stressed that in no way is this an expansion of the Davis-Bacon Act nor will it provide greater wage protection to foreign guest workers than it does to similarly employed American workers.

Currently, both bills are still in conference committee where they could die, especially considering some members of the House have been very adamant about not agreeing to any part of the Senate’s bill. The future of the immigration bill is also dependent on the results of November’s election, which may mean a change in parties controlling Congress. It’s likely the whole process will simply have to start all over.

But regardless of what the law eventually becomes, glass companies will still find themselves in need of workers willing to do hard labor and, in all likeliness, this will be coming from immigrants. So what can companies do?

“More training programs,” says Neunlist. “A lot of workers—even Caucasians—have no experience and they don’t want to be just a helper, but if they don’t know the job we can’t pay them more money. Right now there are no real training programs in our industry,” he says.

“Training is the key,” adds Price. “You fight ignorance with education. People need to be taught skills and they will grow.”

Williams says that IUPAT has been moving toward a certification program for its workers, too. “But it still boils down to enforcement,” he adds. “The law has to be enforced.”

Companies should also find ways to protect themselves.

“If you’ve never done an audit to assure your hiring practices are in compliance, you should do one,” says Hoey. “Make sure you are complying with the law. Also, try to think ahead of what the likely consequences of changes in the law will be. For example … finding ways to verify that the paperwork is legitimate. Think about what the rules are likely to be and start following them now.”

Long-Term Effects
But how much of the road to immigration reform will truly affect the glass industry? 

“It is my basic belief that as long as everyone is competing on the same basis, that is, relative to the cost of labor and materials, there should be virtually no long-term impact on the industry,” says Hill. “In the short term, there’s a chance that there might be a little bit of upheaval, but that should be minimal.”

Hill adds that, regardless of which bill passes, companies are already supposed to be verifying that the people they hire are legal. “If you’re not following the current laws as they are written and allegedly being enforced, why would we think that the new legislation will have an impact of any kind? If an employer is willing to hire an illegal worker and pay him or her in cash, off the books, and there is little or no enforcement of the law against such practices, why do we think anything will ever change if new legislation is adopted?”

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