Hispanic workers seem to be driven in a way that many feel Americans used to be. Partly this is propelled by the desire to escape poverty and attain a better life for themselves and their families. Partly it’s driven by a culture that places a premium on respect, social standing and pulling one’s own weight on the job. And partly it’s driven by economics. “Look at the exchange rates and do the math,” more than one contractor interviewed for this story told me. “The money they earn here is worth twice as much south of the border. If a Hispanic immigrant has got $100,000 in savings, over a 10 year period, he’s a millionaire back home.”
“It’s true,” says Robert Bowling, president of Lawn Irrigation in Atco, New Jersey. “I had a guy who worked for me for four years. He moved back to Mexico and bought a 10-acre ranch with the money he made here. While that’s not a huge ranch in Texas, remember he started out with nothing. He’s doing pretty good.”
A future dominated by foreigners?
Bruce Downing is a Hispanic immigrant critic – even though he freely admits to using Hispanic workers in his Plano, Texas, foundation and concrete repair business. “I have to give them credit,” he says grudgingly. “I think they’re an honest group of people and they’re workers – worker ants, man. But they’re coming in here in droves. They’re not coming in here and doing our work for us. They’re taking our work from us, and I don’t like it.”
Looking ahead to the future, Downing isn’t optimistic. “It’s not lookin’ good,” he says. “But what can it be? Nothing but Mexicans at the rate we’re going. The sad part about it is that you’re not going to find any Americans here at all in another 25 or 30 years. It’s all gonna be a bunch of foreigners … They’re just flooding in now. The politicians talk about stopping ’em at the border… But how you gonna stop a stampede, man? And now they’re talking about worker passes and bullshit like that? But there’s no need for them to be over here in the first place.”
Downing says the root of America’s immigration problem, and its potential resolution, lies south of the U.S. border. “Anyone in the world would rather stay home,” he says. “But these guys don’t have a choice: They’re starvin’ to death in their home countries. We need to get their governments straightened out so they don’t want to come over here. Mexico ought to be one of the richest countries in the world. It’s a beautiful land. They’ve got oil and other natural resources. But they’ve got a corrupt government that holds the common man down and doesn’t give him a chance. Until we fix that, it’s like the floodgates are wide open.”
Old-fashioned work ethic
With an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, Downing’s frustrations are not uncommon. But many contractors marvel at the Hispanic work ethic and don’t hesitate to add Hispanic employees to their crews. Other contractors, like Robert Bowling and Ben Headings, have actively sought out Hispanic workers to grow their businesses.
“I wanted to grow my company and knew the only way I could do that was with Hispanic workers,” says Headings, president of B&B Enterprises, a commercial construction company based in Sadalia, Missouri. “I’m a Mennonite. I don’t pay attention to race, creed, religion or skin color. I’m interested in a man’s ethics. And I have to say the honesty, the respect and attention they pay when they’re on my jobs leads to a wonderful work ethic.”
Headings made the decision to recruit Hispanic workers after talking with an uncle who used them in his own business. “My uncle told me there are significant differences between American and Hispanic cultures that can lead to problems if you’re not aware of them,” he says.
For starters, fiscal responsibility is a must. “If you tell your Hispanic workers you’re paying them every two weeks, then that’s the way it has to be,” he says. “They send a good chunk of their money home. And they budget the rest down to the penny. Many times, when payday arrives, they’re out of money and counting on that paycheck.”
Work scheduling became important, too. “You can run into a high rate of attrition with Hispanic workers if you don’t have jobs lined up,” Headings explains. “That’s because many Hispanics would rather go off and work a $6-an-hour job instead of sitting around waiting for your next project to get going.”
Religion is also an important consideration, Headings discovered. “They want their employer to respect Catholic holy days. And honoring those days has worked out well for me: As a Mennonite, I will not work on Sundays, and many of my Hispanic workers would like to. But since I respect their religious days, they have no problem respecting mine in return.”
Once Headings learned and adopted those ground rules, and demonstrated that he was a trustworthy employer, he was rewarded with a core group of dedicated Hispanic workers. His productivity went up, and he was able to dramatically expand his business as a result. “I’ve always believed a person attracts the type of person they are to themselves,” he notes. “And that’s particularly true with people from Hispanic cultures.”
Bowling also made the decision to seek out Hispanic workers for his irrigation installation company when he finally got fed up with American workers applying for jobs. “I’ll run an ad in the paper for technicians, foremen, laborers, but if any Americans do answer it, I know right off they’re the type of employees who won’t last,” he says. “They’ve got legal problems, personal problems, driver’s license problems or chemical problems. Now, I’m not generalizing. But the reality is that the people who apply for a beginning laborer job are mostly high school and college dropouts. Sometimes you get someone who doesn’t want to go to college and wants to learn a trade. But even if that’s the case, Americans aren’t willing to do this type of work for the long term. They’re willing to do it for a year or two, and then they want to be promoted to something else.”
“They’re always on time,” Headings says of his Hispanic workers. “They don’t call in sick and they don’t miss days. One of my Hispanic guys got hurt this morning, and I had to insist that he go to the hospital with me and get checked out.”
Headings says he saw immediate upswings in productivity when he brought Hispanic workers into his company. And that trend, both Headings and Bowling say, only increased when they promoted Hispanics into foremen’s jobs and other positions of authority. “It made a huge impact on their morale, because they saw that in my company, Hispanics aren’t just stuck digging holes,” Bowling says. “And respect is so important to them, they’ll work even harder for one of their own who’s been promoted.”
Respect also means Hispanic workers won’t put up with slackers on a job, either, Bowling adds. “If we bring in a new American or Hispanic guy who doesn’t pull his weight, they’ll shun him,” he explains. “They’ll turn their back on him because they don’t want his poor performance to hurt their reputation with the bosses. They’re working hard for their money and you can’t work any less, is the way they see it.”
Leeches or benefactors?
But what about the argument that Hispanic immigrants, particularly undocumented workers, are placing a drain on the U.S. government and the benefits it offers to American citizens? Neither Headings nor Bowling believe it. Both men say they demand legitimate paperwork from their Hispanic employees up front, pay their workers legal wages and cut all the pertinent deductions from their checks.
“It’s bad for our economy if contractors are hiring Hispanics and not paying taxes and not doing the proper paperwork on them,” Bowling notes. “That’s going to hurt the system. But those types of people are cheating both Americans and Hispanics. Many companies pay guys under the table, and they’re cheating the system as business owners. We don’t do that. We’re paying everybody on the books. Everyone gets overtime – we don’t pay Mexicans $7 an hour and Americans $10 an hour. We pay what it takes to get someone to do the job.”
At the same time, Bowling says, American Lawn Irrigation makes sure all taxes are taken out of everyone’s check, including Social Security, unemployment and Medicare. “And the Hispanics aren’t eligible for unemployment or Social Security, but they still have to pay it out of their checks. And they don’t claim the yearly refunds they have coming back on their taxes, either, because they want minimal interaction with the government on all levels. So, no, I don’t see them being a drain on our economy. I see them contributing to the general fund we all draw from and not taking anything in return.”
Some Hispanics, Bowling admits, give you bad paperwork stating they are legal (documented workers). “But it’s not your job as an employer to determine if the paperwork is good or bad,” he adds. “As long as you take it and send it in to the state along with the new hire forms and the W2s and W4s at the end of the year. Sometimes we’ll get a letter from the state saying somebody doesn’t match up. But it doesn’t matter, in my opinion. That worker paid his way if he worked for me. And the state has his money. And he’s never going to ask for it back.”
And what would happen if the immigration opponents got their wish and all the Hispanics in the country were returned to their home countries tomorrow? “My company would be devastated,” Headings says. “I don’t know that I could survive without them. They’re that integral to my business and the success I’ve achieved over the last few years.”
Bowling agrees. “It would cause major production problems for us,” he says. “Our production would slow down greatly because I could not replace them.”
But what if he replaced all his Hispanic workers with Americans? “Well, my prices would go up and my productivity would go down at the same time,” Bowling says. “The Hispanics pressure one another to keep up the pace on a job. It’s an internal thing that happens on the crews. Their view is everyone should be pulling their weight. And they’ll tell us if someone on their crew isn’t working out. It’s just remarkable.”