Taking American jobs? A Labor Day look at the work immigrants do | PostIndependent.com

Taking American jobs? A Labor Day look at the work immigrants do

Carla Jean Whitley and Ryan Summerlin
cj@postindependent.com rsummerlin@postindependent.com

She rises every morning in a home she once worked two jobs to keep. Cecilia Rivera bought her south Glenwood Springs house in 2006, two years before the Great Recession took its toll.

Rivera was laid off from her job and returned to cleaning houses — work she'd known for decades. She would sneak in a few hours of rest, and then arrive to her second job at the nearby Wal-Mart.

The schedule was brutal, but Rivera was determined to keep her home.

Now she leaves it every morning and travels the few blocks to the 27th Street Roaring Fork Transportation Authority station. She'll take the bus upvalley to Aspen Square Condominium Hotel, where for three and a half years she's worked as executive housekeeping manager.

Her staff of 24 is predominantly immigrants — and their stories hit close to home.

These are the immigrants who some say are taking Americans' jobs.

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General Manager Warren Klug is quick to push against that notion. He's seen few Anglos apply for such roles in his 24 years at the hotel. Instead, his staff of nearly 50 — Rivera's department accounts for half — is largely hardworking immigrants, he said.

"Why are they working? They're working because their employers need them," Klug said.

He and his staff follow federal regulations regarding eligibility to work, and over the years Klug has spoken passionately about immigrant rights.

Rivera is one of 11 children. Her parents sought better, more affordable education opportunities than those in Juarez, Mexico. The family moved to El Paso, Texas, where Rivera's siblings remain. They weren't pleased when she began housekeeping in Aspen 27 years ago, but Rivera said she likes the work. Now the 57-year-old woman tries to create a positive, welcoming atmosphere for her team.

When Rivera's staff arrives at 8:30 each morning, they gather in the housekeeping office for breakfast and conversation. The aroma of spices and Latin-influenced dishes fills the air, and many of the women chat in both Spanish and English Rivera uses the opportunity to brief the team on the day's work.

"I like to make jokes so they don't come sad to work," she said. It seems to work; Klug can often hear the women laughing from his office, one floor up.

These roles are not easy to fill, and they're crucial to the guest experience. Klug said hotel and restaurant managers throughout the area would agree.

"Immigrants are an important part of our economy, and they contribute to our economy."

Economic data

Economic research supports Klug's experience.

"The simple idea that immigrants are taking our jobs just cannot be true, right?" Brian Cadena said with a laugh. Cadena is an associate professor in the University of Colorado Boulder's department of economics. "There aren't even as many unemployed Americans as there are immigrants, so it can't be the case that every immigrant that has come in and is working has kicked a native-born person out of a job. That math simply doesn't add up."

Economists like Cadena have studied a multitude of issues related to immigrants and the American economy. He pointed to The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine's report "The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration."

The biggest takeaway, he said, is the average American hasn't seen a negative effect on wages or employment opportunities.

However, lower-skilled, native-born workers are more likely to see their employment opportunities affected, but to a limited extent.

"Immigrants are actually really good about moving to places where their skills are needed," Cadena said. People without a college education who were born in the United States are less prone to moving, especially away from their states of birth. "It keeps the labor market functioning well. It matches up supply and demand in a way that's useful for the economy."

State demographer Elizabeth Garner noted Colorado as a whole has seen its immigrant growth rate decline during the 2000s after a steady influx during the construction boom of the '90s.

"In many places that percent foreign born declined during the recession because of lack of jobs. They're going to where jobs are," she said.

Stephan Weiler of Colorado State University also studies economic growth, and rural areas are part of his research.

"If you take a look at the early part of the last century, there were a lot of the same issues," said Weiler, a professor of economics. He pointed to his native California as an example. World War II created an anti-Japanese sentiment in many, and California decreed people of Japanese excluded from the state. But over time, California has become a melting pot, with 27 percent of its population foreign born. The national average is 13.2 percent, and Colorado clocks in at 9.8 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Why is that relevant?

Weiler said it's hard to argue with California's economic success — it has the sixth-largest economy in the world.

Immigration isn't just about lower-skilled workers. Places with higher concentration of foreign-born residents also have more entrepreneurs.

"The thing about migration even in the U.S., even between states: It's self-selecting. It's those people that have the energy, the ideas, the drive who migrate," Weiler said. "That's absolutely true about international migration. The people who move, who take chances to come here, are pretty motivated."

Dreaming of business

Rosa Contreras hopes to see herself among that group. She was a small business owner before she left Guatemala in pursuit of the American dream. But in the States, she's had to start over.

Contreras' husband, Oscar, moved to Carbondale in 2003 at the urging of relatives who were already in the area. Rosa and the couple's three daughters left Tiquisate four years later, leaving her salon behind. When she arrived in America, Contreras learned she would have to enroll in cosmetology school, not merely take a test, in order to be licensed in Colorado.

It took four years before her English was good enough and she was able to afford the 16-month course. In that time, she found an English in Action partner and gained confidence. But the barrier was still discouraging enough that she wanted to quit school within the first 15 days, despite her 15-plus years of experience.

Contreras didn't give up, though. The only career she wanted was the one she left in Guatemala.

She "likes to see how people liven up when she gives them what she thinks is just a simple haircut or makeup look," said her daughter Rocio Contreras, 16. Rocio helped her mother with English for this interview. "They come back to life."

The demands of cosmetology school prevented Contreras from working simultaneously. But she was able to work toward another goal: Permanent residency. After securing their status, the family drove back to Guatemala for a visit — eight years after most of the family arrived in America, and 12 years after Oscar's move.

"People don't really understand how hard it is. They won't understand it till they step in their shoes," Rocio translated for her mother.

Although becoming licensed for cosmetology in another country was challenging, Contreras said it was worth the effort. She completed school in December and began working at The Barber Shoppe in Carbondale in January. She dreams of one day opening her own salon, and Contreras loves her work.

"She goes there every day and listens to stories. People are definitely thankful for her job," Rocio said. Some clients joke that their time in Contreras' chair is like a Spanish lesson.

Sharing her life experience is part of the joy, too.

"When she's cutting hair, she can hear about their life stories and they can hear hers," Rocio said. "It really can change your life."

Immigration in the Roaring Fork Valley

Some of the Roaring Fork Valley's biggest industries run on immigrant labor. In Garfield County, about 35 percent of the population is Hispanic.

"They're an important part of our labor force, especially in tourism and construction," said Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky. And looking at the national economy, there are other sectors, especially agriculture, where immigrants are critical, he said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey, Hispanics make up about 24 percent of Garfield County's workforce. That's up from 21 percent in 2010.

Garner, the state demographer, reported to commissioners in 2016 that Garfield County is much more racially and ethnically diverse than most Colorado counties.

The county's youth population is also a lot more diverse than its older population, and the percentage of Hispanic residents is expected to continue increasing. The diverse young generation is an indicator of where the region is headed demographically. Currently, about 50 percent of high school students are Latino, said Jankovsky.

That young population in Garfield County is also starting to join the labor force, and the state demographer projected that, in the years leading to 2020, for every 100 people entering the labor force, 60 of them are Hispanic.

Not all of the Roaring Fork Valley's Latinos are immigrants; many of them have been here for two or three generations, Jankovsky noted. In terms of the labor force, Sunlight Mountain, of which Jankovsky is general manager, is seeing more and more first-generation people who have the same language skills in English as the Anglo community, he said.

"Lots of people think there's a huge cultural clash, but I don't see that. I see many similarities between this community of immigrants and others who have come here before," said Jankovsky, himself a third-generation American of Czechoslovakian descent. "I do think that the Latino population mixes very well with our current population, as far as values in family, faith, working hard and wanting the American dream."

Heavy labor

Glenwood Springs carpenter Marcos Cruz shows that construction, though it's hard work, can produce a solid livelihood in this valley. Originally from Puebla, Mexico, he came to the U.S. on a work visa 14 years ago. Cruz planned to stay for a couple of years to save enough money to pay for college and pursue his dream of competing in triathlons.

When he first came to the U.S. he tried lots of different jobs: working at a car wash, cleaning offices, washing dishes and eventually as a prep cook in Italian and Mongolian restaurants.

He met his wife while salsa dancing at Jimmy's in Aspen, and they started their family of now three daughters.

Cruz gained citizenship about five years ago, and he's applying for residency for his parents, hoping to move them closer.

"Just missing our family is the hard part. You think you come here with your heart, but your heart stays there," said Cruz.

It was in carpentry where he found his passion for detail. Cruz said some advice from his father stuck with him — "that you have to work very seriously, like when you play when you are young. All the kids play very serious; they get into the game, that's what we have to do when we work."

When he started in construction, Cruz said he wasn't learning all that much on the job. But he wanted to learn more and advance his career, so during his breaks he would pore over blueprints. Now he's working on multimillion dollar projects upvalley around Aspen and Snowmass, and he's in charge of all the carpenters on his current job. He's had as many as a dozen workers under him at a time.

Some carpenters will focus on a single aspect of the work, Cruz says, but his crew covers just about everything on the job: framing, the finishing inside and out and the timbers.

On the job, Cruz has to pay close attention to detail but also take a step back for the bigger picture. "Sometimes, you have to open your eyes a lot. There are things that don't come in the plans that you have to figure out how to work," he said.

And it's a type of work that keeps his brain turning, constantly working to figure out how to make all those elements fit together, sometimes waking him up at 2 or 3 a.m. as it attempts to solve a problem.

Cruz also keeps up some side work; he does carpentry downvalley where he charges more modestly than at the upvalley work. "I try to get a good energy, a good karma. I believe if you produce good energy, you're going to get good energy back," he said.

Construction work is not easy, he says. It's early mornings, heavy labor and you're exhausted at the end of the day.

But his family and passion for biking and running keep him energized, and these days he's sharing that love for racing with his young daughters. "I'm very happy to get up in the morning and come to work; I like what I do," he said.

The work goes on

Likewise, the housekeeping staff at Aspen Square seems happy to arrive at work. The familial atmosphere doesn't mean things are perfect, Rivera noted. But when conflicts arise, she reminds the staff: "You're not here to make friends, you're here to make money."

And they do. The housekeeping staff at Aspen Square is motivated to work quickly. They're paid by the room, and the more efficient employees earn as much as $25 an hour. (Housekeepers are paid $21.50 for each studio unit cleaned.)

But the physical work isn't just about speed. Rivera or a supervisor on her team inspects each room before it's complete. She expects each staff member to thoroughly clean, scrubbing each shower and wiping down every surface in the unit. If a room is particularly messy, Rivera will step in to help; after years of the labor-intensive work, she prefers to take the bedroom and living room while junior staff handles the kitchen and bathroom.

"You need to be strong. You have to be flexible," she said.

That means different employees will complete a different number of rooms each day. But the collegial atmosphere Rivera strives for shows up at the end of the day, too. Most staff finish cleaning between 2:30 and 3 p.m. If someone is straggling, the other women will pitch in to help her finish.

The next morning they'll arise from their homes in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt and board the RFTA bus for Aspen. No matter how many times they stoop to clean floors or fling their arms overhead to toss out a fresh bedspread, each day the work begins anew.

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IMMIGRANTS AND THE ECONOMY

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released its report "The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration" in September 2016. Among its findings:

• "When measured over a period of 10 years or more, the impact of immigration on the wages of native-born workers overall is very small." The negative impacts are most likely to affect prior immigrants and native-born workers who haven't finished high school.

• "There is little evidence that immigration significantly affects the overall employment levels of native-born workers." Those most affected are, again, prior immigrants. Native-born teenagers may see their number of hours worked reduced, but not their employment levels.

• Some evidence suggests skilled immigrants create positive wage effects for some groups of native-born workers.

• "Immigration has an overall positive impact on long-run economic growth in the United States."

• First-generation immigrants cost the government more than native born, largely due to educating the immigrants' children, the report found. "However, as adults, the children of immigrants (the second generation) are among the strongest economic and fiscal contributors in the U.S. population, contributing more in taxes than either their parents or the rest of the native-born population."

• "Over the long term, the impacts of immigrants on government budgets are generally positive at the federal level but remain negative at the state and local level — but these generalizations are subject to a number of important assumptions. Immigration's fiscal effects vary tremendously across states." This is because states and local governments fund education, but their taxes aren't structured to support this expense. However, the federal government mostly provides benefits to the elderly. These young immigrants often work and pay taxes, so they add to the federal financial situation.

Native-born employees and immigrant employees with similar characteristics contribute to the economy at similar levels.

IMMIGRANT IMPACT

Part of an occasional series by the Post Independent and Aspen Times.

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