Around the Table

From shortages to costs to employee verification processes, many aspects of labor hinge upon the outcome of the national immigration debate, especially for the green industry. In his State of the Union address, President Bush expressed his commitment to comprehensive immigration reform, which was passed by the Senate but stalled in the House during the last Congress. It is no question the topic will once again be big news throughout 2007, which is why the staff of GPN's Big Grower contacted three big growers to learn their thoughts on this issue. See what they have to say about immigration and its affect on their businesses.

How did the immigration issue impact your operations in 2006? How do you expect it to affect your business in 2007?

"The main impact that we felt was that in Utah the unemployment rate is currently 21Ú2 percent. This means there are a number of employers chasing a limited pool of potential employees. This meant that the cost of labor per employee increased. For 2007, the effects will be entirely due to potential legislation changing the employer requirements for hiring workers. Currently, we hire anyone who has the proper documentation and is willing to work."
Ñ Brian Gold, Pineae Greenhouses, Inc., Ogden, Utah

"The immigration issue really didn't impact our growing operations in 2006. As we head into 2007, there is definitely a shortage of people in the work place. On the other hand, we placed an ad for regional merchandise supervisors and received 150 applications. You can see the shortage of general staff and an excess of middle managers. I think this is why many people are against immigrant workers."
Ñ Randy Tagawa, Tagawa Greenhouses, Inc., Brighton, Colo.

"With the housing decreasing this past year, we had more applicants than we normally get. In our area, labor is still plentiful. We did not experience any shortage at any period. 2007 appears that it will be the same but 5 percent more costly."
Ñ Rick Brown, Riverview Flower Farm, Riverview, Fla.

What are the biggest challenges facing your business when it comes to immigrant workers? What are the biggest immigrant worker issues for the industry as a whole?

"I believe that the biggest issue facing our industry is the issue that many of our workers are possibly not legal. This is then coupled with the current emotional rhetoric in our country from both political parties. Many people would like to just magically transport all illegal workers out of the United States overnight."
Ñ Brian Gold

"It is difficult to run your business based on how many people you have to get the job done."
Ñ Randy Tagawa

"Imagine the National Guard going door to door to arrest the illegal immigrants. That is not how we operate in America, but it is one of the crazy ideas circulating. Some suggest a roundup of the 5- or 10- or 15-million undocumented workers. I truly believe this is a political and emotional issue that has no reasonable short-term solution. Fixing the issue is too difficult for our current government and too disastrous for our economy if the plan is not properly conceived. Currently, we are able to employ enough workers to get our job done. The biggest challenges will be in the future after a reasonable guest worker act is enacted."
Ñ Rick Brown

In your geographic region, how are other industries dealing with the immigrant workforce? How is that different from your company?

"I believe that [the other industries] are doing much the same as we are."
Ñ Brian Gold

"The ski and resort industry is facing the same issues as us. Their immigrant workforce is coming from Australia and South America every winter. I've heard up to 25 percent of their workforce is immigrant workers. There are more similarities than differences when we talk about immigration."
Ñ Randy Tagawa

"Because of our climate and year-round need for agricultural, construction and service workers, Florida has always been a top destination for these workers from many countries. Our company starts workers at rates higher than minimum wage and other area employers. We promote quickly, so we have good retention of valued workers. Florida's minimum wage law is tied to the cost of living and has gone up dramatically the last two years, but it is not as dramatic here as it is in areas of Florida where the hotel, restaurant and tourism trades are competing for labor. Naples, Orlando and Palm Beach county employers have difficulty staffing at $9-10 an hour."
Ñ Rick Brown

How do you verify the legality of your immigrant employees' citizenship?

"We require the two forms of ID and then photocopy [the documentation that] has been given to us. If something is obviously not accurate or a forgery, we do not accept it. As mentioned earlier, we do not go beyond this because of legal council's advice.

If a social security number is kicked back as being not accurate, we immediately terminate that employee."
Ñ Brian Gold

"We check thoroughly all potential employees. We have made it an effort to make sure all of our employees have good papers by first a good physical check of identification, I-9s and a call to social security for verification."
Ñ Randy Tagawa

"We are obligated by the law not to discriminate. We look at their identification presented and cannot challenge the legitimacy if the documents appear to be in order."
Ñ Rick Brown

In your opinion, what do you think needs to be done on the national level to alleviate the challenges associated with immigrant workers?

"I believe strongly that we need to have a guest worker program with ID documents that are easily verifiable. There are currently estimated to be about 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States. If some peoples' wishes were granted and they were all magically transported via a Star Trek-type system back to where they came from, our economy would immediately suffer great calamity. There would not be the workers to build houses, serve food, plant plants and many other tasks. Wages would spiral out of control, crops would rot in the field and the entire economy would suffer. I believe that all sides need to step back, take a deep breath, and then get realistic and solve the problem. Everyone needs to remember that these are human beings that we are dealing with. I do not think that an amnesty program is the answer, but we need to take the emotion out of the debate and try to remember that these are in most cases hardworking, decent people we are talking about. The politicians need to be compassionate and try to come to a real solution to the problem."
Ñ Brian Gold

"What we need to do is make it easier to get proper work visas for any eligible immigrant to work with good U.S. businesses. And then you can increase the enforcement of illegal workers in the United States."
Ñ Randy Tagawa

"The media's general negativity about the immigrant issue puts the solution farther out of reach. We must all start talking about the true facts. The terms of a guest worker act should be negotiable among clear-thinking people and politicians, and it is on all of us to learn the facts and talk sense to all the people and our representatives."
Ñ Rick Brown

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For more information on this article, contact Tim Hodson at [email protected] or (847) 391-1019.

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