The construction industry is facing several challenges that could be enhanced by President Trump’s new policies. The idea of having American workers build a wall along the southern border with Mexico means tens of thousands of laborers will have to be hired to get the job done. Right now, undocumented workers are being used to keep projects on schedule that would otherwise suffer from a lack of labor. If those laborers are deported and the wall project becomes a reality, the labor shortage in the construction industry could become crippling.
In the Bronx, the spotlight has been on the treatment of undocumented workers when Jorge Juca died working on a construction project in 2014 in the Bronx. Juca was part of a demolition crew taking down an old supermarket when he plunged to his death. As part of its official investigation, OSHA concluded that the contractor, R.S. Ecua Contracting, wanted to hire as many undocumented workers as possible to get the job done fast and cheap. The workers were not given any safety training and no safety equipment. The death has made the Bronx a part of a city-wide conversation about undocumented workers.
New Policies Affecting Undocumented Immigrants
In 2015, then President Barack Obama, was still talking about the idea of offering citizenship to the nearly 11 million illegal immigrants who worked in the United States and a guest worker visa was on its way to becoming a reality. In 2016, Donald Trump campaigned for president promising to “round up” undocumented workers and deport them. As 2017 gets underway and the new Trump presidency is in its beginning stages, it looks like Trump is ready to keep his promise.
President Trump recently signed an executive order clearing the way for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hire 10,000 new agents immediately. The sole purpose of the order was to beef up Trump’s immigration enforcement “army” to go out and start arresting illegal immigrants and deporting them out of the country.
At first, President Trump indicated that only those illegal immigrants with violent crimes in their past or who were recently arrested for violent crimes or felonies will be deported. But it has become apparent that anything that puts an illegal immigrant on the legal radar, such as a parking ticket, is being used to arrest and detain people.
The new edict from the new president has completely changed the environment in the world of illegal immigrants and now many families are preparing for the worst. Immigration lawyers are receiving thousands of calls from people who are in the country illegally and want to know what to do if they are arrested. For the illegal immigrants who have been in the United States for decades and have deep roots in America, this newest threat is proving to be terrifying.
Facing Labor Shortages And Skilled Workers
The construction industry has been battling its own problems ever since it started to rebound from the 2008 recession. From 2006 to 2011, there were 2.3 million jobs lost in the construction industry and many of those positions belonged to skilled workers. After years of low job prospects, a large portion of those skilled workers moved on to other industries, while the construction industry did nothing to replace them. When construction revenue started to rise in 2012, there was an immediate rush for the remaining skilled workers. In 2017, that rush has resulted in a worker shortage.
As the labor shortage continued to take hold and there were no new skilled laborers being trained to pick up the slack, construction companies had to start letting workers go because they could not bid on work. Wages started to go up, but still, construction workers were finding it difficult to keep steady jobs. Among this group of construction workers trying to keep jobs going were undocumented workers. But with the new policies of the new president, the construction industry could be in trouble.
How Will Deporting Undocumented Workers Affect Construction Projects?
It is extremely difficult to get any accurate figures on how many undocumented workers are doing construction in the Bronx and in New York City as a whole. However, it is known that a large majority of those workers work for non-union construction companies. Ever since unions lost their stranglehold on the New York City construction industry, there has been a rise in the number of non-union contractors carrying out larger projects, and that has also led to a rise in accidents and deaths.
Many in the non-union construction industry fear that the problem with deporting undocumented workers could cause many companies to close, and it would have a dramatic effect on the cost of building in New York City. In 2011, the difference in total wages between union and non-union workers was $10.62 per hour, which is almost a 25 percent difference. As wages go up, that difference remains intact and keeps construction costs down in New York City. But many union officials argue that the rise in deaths among non-union contractors shows how devastating that cost difference is. It should also be noted that almost all of the construction deaths in New York City in the last three years have been undocumented workers.
The Battle Between Unions And Job Owners
If undocumented workers in the New York City construction industry are arrested and deported, that would put a huge dent in the number of non-union companies. Unions argue that the loss of undocumented workers would force non-union companies to start paying higher wages, and that would level the playing field when it comes to bidding for smaller private commercial and residential projects.
Commercial developers and other job owners warn that if the construction labor field in New York City is affected by mass deportations, then the cost of building anything in New York City could become prohibitive. Right now, private projects have the ability to choose between union and non-union labor. If non-union companies are forced to raise their wages to attract workers, then that will significantly raise the cost of construction in New York City.
The future of undocumented workers in construction is tentative at best. Some companies may find ways to keep undocumented workers on their payroll, but there is a real possibility that the New York City construction labor pool could become very thin if ICE starts to arrest and deport workers. If that is coupled with a drain on workers because of the immigration wall, then that could spell serious trouble for the construction industry.
Is A Crisis On The Horizon?
Right now, the construction industry in New York City and around the country is suffering from a shortage of skilled workers. To make up for some of that shortage, undocumented workers are being used in some skilled positions, and also being used as low-paid laborers to free up money to attract other skilled workers. New York City building developers are also utilizing undocumented workers to keep construction costs down and projects moving ahead.
If President Trump’s aggressive approach to illegal immigrants starts to deplete the New York City construction worker pool, then that will have a domino effect that could be catastrophic for the industry. With more ICE agents being hired and the number of arrests of illegal immigrants on the rise, it looks like the New York City construction industry needs to brace for a crisis it never counted on at a time when construction revenue is on the rise.