Union Members Passed Over For Undocumented Workers
By Frank Spotorno
As our country debates the future of immigration reform and what to do with the estimated 11 million undocumented persons who are not citizens and have not gone through the legal process to become American citizens, one thought we hear again and again about the millions of undocumented workers is that they take jobs that no American will take, in the restaurant industry and in landscaping here in New York.
What I have found while traveling around construction jobs sites in New York City with members of trade unions is that 75 percent of all construction workers are now undocumented, and there is no desire to enforce the laws currently on the books, or make sure that union, skilled, American trade workers get the jobs on the new buildings and skyscrapers popping up across NYC.
This is the debate and discussion our country needs to have – we need to have, and our members of Congress need to have with President (Donald) Trump. But nobody wants to have that tough discussion, so for years our federal government has not enforced the laws currently on the books.
President Trump should not be blamed for the immigration problem, or for the fact that our leaders have not enforced the immigration laws passed in 1986 by a bipartisan coalition. The deal was simple: The Republicans would accept amnesty for those already here if the Democrats would accept sanctions on employers hiring undocumented workers. The amnesty went through on schedule. As for the enforcement, we're still waiting for it and the last four presidents have offered only token enforcement.
If we had started enforcing the laws on both undocumented workers and the employers who hire them, back in 1986, we would not have the problems we have today. I don’t want mass deportations and families torn apart, but I do want my union brothers and sisters to have the first opportunity at construction jobs sites in NYC.
However, U.S. Customs and Immigration Services has another way employers can check their employees’ eligibility: E-Verify, an online database that allows businesses to check the status of their hires. Twenty-two states now require E-Verify for employers and a bill has been introduced in Congress to make E-Verify mandatory nationwide.
Some believe that nationwide, E-Verify will just force employers to pay undocumented workers off the books in cash – but something must be done to protect the American worker.
Currently, on construction jobs in NYC, the “unspoken agreement” let’s shifty and shady general contractors pass the responsibility of verification to subcontractors, who hire without paperwork and pay off the books, or who take paperwork that is fraudulent.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have the authority to visit job sites and can conduct I-9 audits, to ensure that employers are collecting required employee documents – like Social Security cards, birth certificates or other proof of work authorization – and then check to make sure those documents are legitimate. Failure to comply can result in a fine of more than $2,000 per employee, but in the multi-billion-dollar NYC construction industry, the risk far outweighs the punishment.
The legal way to hire is simple; employees fill out I-9s, (the basic form that confirms a worker is eligible for employment) and a W-4 (for tax withholding). They also submit documentation, including a Social Security number and government identification.
However, most subcontractors are turning a blind eye to I-9 falsification. As long as the name on the paperwork matches the name the employee gave them, and their photo ID looks like it could be them, they don’t tend to, or need to, ask questions. Or in most cases on jobs sites that I have visited, there are no I-9 verifications at all.
The solution can be found. First, companies need to find, hire and take care of as many good documented workers as possible, and enforce the I-9 laws already on the books. Second, our leaders in Washington need to stop fighting, sit down, and work out immigration reforms, which could include allowing more people with construction skills to legally enter the country as a way to provide temporary relief for construction firms through a guest-worker program.
Both parties are to blame; Democrats claim to be the party of our unions? Then prove it and help get more union workers hired here in NYC. Republicans claim to want to stop illegal immigration? Then prove it and hold our contractors, subcontractors and American businesses accountable to the I-9 laws.
For those of us who play by the rules and live by the laws of our nation, we want a level playing field. That includes union workers who pay their taxes, and some companies like my own, who only hire union employees and documented American workers. I see my competitors hiring undocumented workers and bidding lower on jobs because they pay their employees less.
We have a mayor of NYC who highlighted the good things that undocumented persons add to our communities, but he never speaks of the citizens and voters who are unemployed and can’t find work in the construction industry that is booming in NYC. This is the unspoken problem with sanctuary cities – no enforcement of employment laws, and making it harder for ICE agents to do their work on job sites.
The argument that undocumented workers only take the jobs that no Americans want in nonsense. The other argument, that young Americans no longer want to be hired as craftsmen, carpenters, electricians or even hanging sheetrock, also is not true. We all can’t go to college and work at a computer.
There is work to be done rebuilding our city, state and country. Let us hire union workers, who are waiting and wanting to work, for these jobs. Let’s put their interests first.
And let us hold our members of Congress accountable to do their jobs and fix our immigration system, or get out of the way and let someone else do it.
Frank Spotorno is an elevator manufacturer based in Astoria. He is the co-founder of bringourjobshome.com and ran for Congress in New York’s 14th District in 2016.