Williams Bros. Lumber spells out in contracts with the subcontractors it hires to install products for builders or homeowners that the subcontractor must use labor that is either native-born or is in the country legally. But Jon Parker, general manager of the Suwanee, Ga.–based pro dealer's $30 million construction services division, says he can't say for certain that all of his subs' laborers are documented. “We're currently doing research to see where we stand with our contractors,” said Parker when he was interviewed in mid-April, around the same time that the national debate over immigration policies was reaching its boiling point.
This debate, which has touched off massive rallies in several major cities and a political firestorm in Washington, revolves around the millions of undocumented workers who are in the United States now and the hundreds of thousands more who stream into the country illegally every year, mostly over the U.S.-Mexico border. Although a significant number of immigrant workers legally hold jobs in construction, a sizable number of illegal arrivals also are ending up in the industry, a fact that is shining a harsh light on home builders and contractors at a time when the public—anxious about border security and the added stress illegals are placing on communities' social services—is demanding that employers be held more accountable for their hiring practices and for verifying the legality of who's on their payrolls.
Even if their workforces and hiring procedures are beyond reproach, pro dealers that offer installation services or that manufacture building products they sell are, by necessity, becoming more sensitive to this issue because they don't want to get snagged by pending legislation aimed at making life uncomfortable for employers that persist in hiring undocumented workers or subcontractors that do. The Chicago Tribune reported that between January and early April, 42 states introduced nearly 400 immigration-related bills, including the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act, which mandates that employers verify their workers' legality under the threat of stiff fines and possible criminal charges. Several other states, including California, North Carolina, and Arizona, have either passed similar laws or have bills awaiting gubernatorial or voter approval.
Parker says that if the Georgia bill, which went into effect July 1, views companies like Williams Bros. as “primary contractors,” the dealer “is going to need a better method of verifying” what subs it uses on installation projects. That fear of guilt by association is certainly justified, after government officials on May 9 raided four of Fischer Homes' construction sites in Ohio, as well as the builder's headquarters in Crestview Hills, Ky., and arrested 76 illegal immigrants at the jobsites and four of Fischer's construction supervisors, who face up to 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines. News reports say that for two years the IRS had been investigating Fischer's alleged hiring of undocumented workers through subcontactors.
A Critical Workforce The Washington, D.C.–based Pew Hispanic Center, in a highly regarded study of the size and demographics of immigrant labor, estimates there are between 11.5 million and 12 million “unauthorized migrants” in the United States (compared to 3 million two decades ago), and that since 2000 a net average of 500,000 people a year have entered illegally and have stayed in this country. More than 7 million of the undocumented immigrants are part of the workforce, holding about 5 percent of all jobs in America and 14 percent of all construction jobs (see “Undocumented Workers by Industry,” left).
An online survey of nearly 800 builders and contractors that BUILDER magazine (a sister publication of PROSALES) conducted in February and March found that one-third had at least some undocumented workers on their jobsites. It's even higher among companies that build more than 100 homes a year. “The construction industry has been heavily populated by undocumented workers,” observes Mike Butts, president of LBM Solutions, a leading installation services consultant based in DeWitt, Mich. “I've seen the Pew numbers, but I've also seen it in the field, too.”
The reason for this, say builders, contractors, and dealers, is simply a matter of supply, demand, and economics: There aren't enough American-born or legal workers who are willing to enter the construction field for what employers are willing to pay. This spring, Cox Lumber's headquarters yard in St. Petersburg, Fla., asked the company's design center to temporarily stop accepting requests from customers for installation services. This store, which has its own in-house crews, is the only one of Cox's 29 locations that installs a full breadth of products, and it can't find enough qualified installers to handle the amount of work out there, says Paul Wright, the store's installed sales manager.
In Colorado, Alpine Lumber had to wade through 60 applications before it could find five installers to its liking for the window installation business it launched in March. “Some couldn't pass the drug test, others weren't insurable or had bad driving records,” explains Keith Yoshida, Alpine's installed sales manager.
It's not surprising then that builders and subcontractors have become more dependent on a burgeoning—and, truth be told, less expensive—immigrant workforce, even if that means occasionally winking at these workers' legal status. Forty-five percent of the respondents to BUILDER's survey said that they couldn't sustain their current production levels if their access to illegal immigrant labor were restricted. “Without these workers, this market could not fulfill the needs of Atlanta's permit activity,” says Parker of Williams Bros. More than two-fifths of the survey's respondents also estimate that the prices of the homes they build would rise anywhere from 6 percent to 20 percent if their companies' hiring of illegal immigrant labor were restricted.