Business owner says illegal immigration costing local jobs
By Mark Wineka
Ron Wetzler has had enough.
The owner of Olympic Drywall and Texturing in Rowan County says he’s losing out on jobs awarded instead to subcontractors who employ illegal immigrants, mostly Mexicans.
It’s happening on both commercial and residential construction projects in Rowan County, Wetzler claims.
He doesn’t have proof as to which workers are illegal. The way it works, he says, is usually the subcontractor himself is a legal resident, who then pays his crews ó most of whom are here illegally ó in cash.
Wetzler says the Hispanic workers’ wages are low ó maybe $50 a day. No one’s paying workers’ compensation or liability insurance, and the government is seeing nothing in taxes. It all combines to make it hard for companies such as his to compete.
“They’re so far under us in cost,” Wetzler says.
He recently reported his suspicions about one job site to the Rowan County Sheriff’s Office, which told him to take the matter to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
While local sheriff’s offices, including Rowan, have stepped up their identification and deportation of illegal immigrants who commit crimes, the emphasis has been just that ó illegal immigrants who end up arrested and in county jails.
The N.C. Department of Labor has no program in place to which citizens can report their suspicions about illegal immigrants on job sites. Those calls also are referred to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s tip line, which for now is about the only recourse Wetzler and others like him have.
The federal tip line number is 1-866-DHS-2ICE.
Nina Pruneda, an ICE public affairs officer in Atlanta, said each complaint is taken seriously, though investigations have to be prioritized, with national security concerns given immediate attention.
If a job site under suspicion involves critical infrastructure such as airports, train stations, courthouses and military installations, “obviously that would send up a flag,” Pruneda says.
“Developing sufficient evidence against employers requires complex, white-collar crime investigations that can take years to bear fruit,” the ICE says on its Web site. (See the accompanying story on how ICE approaches worksite enforcement.)
In 2005, an estimated 111,630 Hispanics worked in construction in North Carolina ó a number approaching half the industry’s workforce.
A 2004 study by Dr. James H. Johnson Jr., a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor, said if the Hispanic contributions were withdrawn, the state would lose $10 billion value in construction, $2.7 billion in materials and labor and $145 million in equipment and building rentals.
The value of North Carolina construction work would have been cut by 29 percent, Johnson said.
Mac Butner, executive officer of the Salisbury-Rowan Home Builders Association, says he hears complaints such as Wetzler’s 12 to 15 times a year.
“We think the laws of the United States ought to be enforced as far as immigration,” Butner says. “If that person is using illegal workers, it needs to be pursued and prosecuted according to the law on the books.”
Butner said sometimes complaints about the use of immigrants on job sites are made by businessmen who aren’t being competitive in other ways, so they blame “illegals.” But the underlying dilemma always is figuring out who is illegal and who isn’t, he says, and the home builders organization can’t be a policing agency.
Ron Woodard, director of NC Listen, an immigration reform organization based in Cary, said he also hears complaints about the loss of jobs to employers using illegal aliens as workers.
“Construction is probably the worst,” he says. “That and landscaping is where we hear about it the most.”
Woodard says employers in North Carolina should use the federal E-Verify system to check the legal residency status of their workers. (See accompanying story.)
Contractors who get jobs because they employ illegals are essentially cheating to win that bid, Woodard says. “And quite frankly, it’s un-American,” he adds. “… We have a lot of Americans suffering due to a system that’s out of control.”
Tony Asion, executive director of El Pueblo Inc., a non-profit advocacy group dedicated to strengthening the Latino community and promoting cross-cultural understanding, says for every job a Latino person occupies, he creates two others.
If one looks at the growth in undocumented workers in North Carolina and compares it to an unemployment rate that has stayed the same or declined, “are they really taking away jobs?” Asion asks.
Mai Thi Nguyen, an assistant UNC-Chapel Hill professor and a GlaxoSmithKline faculty fellow with the Institute of Emerging Issues, said in a May report that illegals migrate to areas with labor shortages, thereby filling jobs that are open and not displacing American workers.
“For example,” she said, “in the construction industry illegal immigrants might make it more difficult for high school drop-outs to get a construction job, but their labor in the construction industry also sparks growth in the real estate industry, creating jobs for real estate agents, mortgage brokers, loan officers, insurance agents and real estate lawyers.”
Johnny Breedlove, another drywall contractor in Rowan County, says if it hadn’t been for Hispanics, the country would not have grown as much as it has. But Breedlove also gave an example of how he had to lower his price to compete with a Charlotte firm he suspected of using illegal immigrants.
Breedlove won the contract, but ended up without a profit because, “you can’t take money away from the guys who work for you,” he says.
Wetzler, in the drywall business for almost 40 years, said that while he would normally charge $23 a sheet, he now finds himself bidding against a company using illegals that charges $13.75 a board.
So he’s dropping his price in times when he should probably be going up because of rising fuel prices. It’s affecting all trades ó tile, vinyl, brick, roofing and others, Wetzler says, adding “Our jobs are at risk every day.”
Wetzler hears routinely from local residents with experience in construction begging for work that’s not available. “There’s nothing I can do to help them, he says. “I wish I could.”
Wetzler promises he will be updating his Web site, www.olympicdrywallco.com on this immigration issue and invites others to voice their opinions by e-mails to email@example.com.
The contractor has met with Rowan County Commissioners Jim Sides and Tina Hall and recommended that the county set up a licensing program. It would require all contractors to show their workers compensation documents on each employee, give proof of their employment through pay stubs and allow building inspectors the right to ask questions and check documents on job sites.
It would levy heavy fines, such as $10,000 per violation, for contractors with undocumented workers. “See how fast our Rowan County workers get back to work,” Wetzler says.