The need to build is everywhere, but it’s becoming harder to find construction workers willing to do the jobs, and some states are making it even harder by cracking down on undocumented immigrants, a major source of construction labor.
For decades, with an acceleration after the Great Recession, the nation’s construction workforce has contracted due to early retirement, a lack of vocational education and disinterest from young adults to pursue blue-collar work. That has put additional pressure on immigrants, documented and undocumented, to fill the gaps.
“One thing is pretty darn close to certain and that is that demographics mean we’ll be looking at labor shortages in labor-intensive industries, essentially for the rest of our lives,” said Cullum Clark, director at the Bush Institute-Southern Methodist University Economic Growth Initiative.
Undocumented construction workers face unsafe and uncertain working conditions.
Undocumented workers are an increasingly vital part of the construction workforce. But it is becoming more difficult for this part of the labor pool to grow, due to a lack of enforcement of worker protections, crackdowns on illegal immigration and an inability to reform immigration laws or expand visa programs. These workers now have little legal recourse, less power and more potential for exploitation.
This comes at a time when both a significant nationwide housing shortage and a massive investment in infrastructure require expanding the workforce. Legislation passed in Florida, and proposed elsewhere, would make it more difficult to hire undocumented workers.
Reforming labor and immigration laws would enable and encourage more workers to enter the country temporarily and with less risk, and fill this wide gap. Associated General Contractors of America Vice President of Public Affairs Brian Turmail said immigration and labor reform is “one of its top workforce development priorities,” and a team of in-house lobbyists have been talking with members of Congress about the issue for years.
“Bringing people into the light and making them be eligible to be part of the legal workforce, that would benefit the construction industry and a number of other industries, and Associated Builders and Contractors members who want to do things the right way,” said Pete Comstock, senior director of legislative affairs for the ABC.
But the plight of these workers, often exploited without full recourse to the equal protection of the criminal justice system, remains invisible. More transparency, accountability and legal protection would lessen the risk for immigrants and, advocates argue, encourage more to fill needed construction jobs.
“The infrequency with which we see protections for these workers is in stark comparison with the many instances of anti-immigrant legislation being introduced around the country,” said Michelle Franco, an Ohio State University professor with Mexican roots who studies issues of race and class in landscape architecture. “I don’t feel like we’re in a positive arc.”
Courtesy of Workers Defense Project/Arlene Mejorado
Texas construction workers protesting against a new law rescinding rest breaks for workers.
No Consensus On Capitol Hill
Hired as day laborers, paid under the table and often unable to directly communicate with their superiors, many undocumented workers come from Central American countries and speak indigenous languages, without knowledge of Spanish, or only understand it as a second language, making it challenging to voice complaints or even properly identify those at fault in workplace violations.
Since the last significant federal reform took place in 1992, there have been more crackdowns that have “absolutely made it difficult for people to come here and do this work,” said Laura Collins, director of the Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative, who focuses on immigration. Increasing enforcement occurred during the Trump administration, she said, and while the Biden administration has tried to streamline legal immigration processing, it has also continued some of its predecessor’s policies on asylum seekers and border security.
It is especially difficult for construction workers seeking legal pathways to migrate. Fewer than 10,000 green cards per year go to people with less education than a bachelor’s degree, Collins said, and finding seasonal visas is incredibly challenging, pitting construction workers against agricultural labor.
Adding more visas for these types of workers would certainly benefit the construction industry, she said, and “absolutely” add more laborers.
Data underscores the way immigrant labor, both documented and undocumented, impacts costs. Clark, from t
he Bush Institute, compiled statistics on the foreign-born population of U.S. cities and construction costs, and she found that as the former increases, the latter decreases.
“Declining immigration rates since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic have contributed significantly to labor shortfalls and soaring construction costs, fueling home affordability challenges and other rapid price increases in cities throughout the Nation,” Clark’s report says.
Undocumented workers also have few avenues for advancement, according to Sean Goldhammer, employment legal services director for the Texas-based Workers Defense Project. Construction workers who lack work authorization are excluded from most training and apprenticeship programs, precluding them from gaining skills needed to fill key shortages in specific trades.
Combine that with anti-immigrant laws pushing immigrant workers out of the second- and third-most-populous states in the country, and it becomes harder to attract new workers to the industry.
Florida’s new law, State Bill 1718, adds increasing penalties on employers for hiring undocumented workers. Madeline Zavodny, a professor of economics at the University of North Florida, believes the law will ultimately mean fewer new immigrants come to Florida — the verification only comes when new workers are hired — which will, over time, shrink that state’s undocumented labor force. Angst and uncertainty over the law has led many to predict it will hurt the industry, with some contractors talking of empty job sites.
AGC’s Turmail told Bisnow there is a significant issue with undocumented labor, due in large part to the nation’s “policy schizophrenia.”
When the country hasn’t invested enough in its own labor force, trained Americans to work in construction, given current undocumented workers a path to legal status or fixed border security issues, it runs the risk of undocumented workers being exploited, Turmail added.
Members of AGC believe it’s unfair for them to be tasked with verifying documents and charged with investigative immigration responsibilities.
“The industry isn’t ICE,” Turmail said.
His group advocates for a kind of grand bargain around immigration and labor: increasing the number of visas for construction workers; ramping up training of American workers; and beefing up border security, to provide more protection for a growing temporary workforce while shrinking the undocumented population. ABC has a very similar stance. But there’s simply no appetite for reaching any kind of immigration reform in Congress, Turmail said, much less a grand bargain.
“We feel a bit like Sisyphus, rolling a boulder up a hill,” he added.
New legislation in Florida and Texas is pushing back on job access and protections for undocumented workers.
‘Just Another Carlos’
For obvious reasons, tracking the total number of undocumented workers, in construction or as a whole, is challenging. But estimates suggest this part of the overall construction workforce is significant. In Texas, undocumented workers could account for as much as 25% of the construction workforce, the Bush Center’s Collins said.
Other research suggests it may be more; 1 in every 13 people in Texas works in construction, and of those, 50%, or roughly 400,000, are undocumented, according to a survey by the Workers Defense Project. ABC research found 100,000 construction workers nationwide are here via Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, and Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, two immigration programs that have been the subject of significant political debate and some uncertainty.
Bisnow reached out to a dozen large contracting and construction firms and industry groups that operate in Texas to discuss policies around undocumented labor, and only received one reply, from DPR Construction, which declined to comment.
The increase in the immigrant labor force in landscaping and construction shot up between 1990 and 2000, said Franco, the Ohio State professor. A severe shortage in U.S. trade labor created a gap that was filled by a massive migration from Mexico, sparked in part by waves of indigenous land dispossession and the failing of small-scale family agriculture. The industry has depended on these workers ever since, she said.
And yet, these workers can face verbal abuse, hate speech, race-related threats and even physical violence on the job.
A May Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report focused on the construction industry highlighted some of the mistreatment workers face, noting “egregious harassment of Black and Hispanic or Latino workers, including racial and ethnic slurs, racist graffiti, references to slavery and lynching, and nooses.” Incidents include staff being kicked in the head with steel-toed boots during an altercation with a co-worker or having roofing tiles tossed at them.
There have been a few small signs of progress, after decades of inaction, on providing more protections for undocumented construction workers. Take the example of 22-year-old Ecuadorian immigrant construction worker Carlos Moncayo, and the value the law initially placed on his life. The $10K fine initially levied against Harco Construction, the firm responsible for an unsafe work environment that ultimately led to a 13-foot trench collapsing on Moncayo on April 6, 2015, was described by Manhattan’s then-district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., as “monopoly money.” The amount was less than a single day’s payroll on the project.
“What was really appalling to me was that it was as if his life didn’t matter,” Linda Florence, the former Manhattan prosecutor who would eventually win a prosecution in the case, told Bisnow. “He was less valuable. He was just another Carlos.”
Courtesy of Workers Defense Project/Pamela Silva
A protest for better labor conditions for construction workers led by the Workers Defense Project.
More than seven years later, in December 2022, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed Carlos’ Law, a bill championed by Florence and other advocates that would drastically increase the penalties for accidents like the one that killed Moncayo to $500K.
There have been some additional legal changes and efforts to guarantee more safety and security for undocumented workers. The Department of Homeland Security issued a directive earlier this year that would give undocumented workers who pursue workers’ rights claims temporary protected status, to avoid retribution around coming forward.
In May, Pennsylvania Rep. Lloyd Smucker introduced HR 3734, the Essential Workers for Economic Advancement Act, which would sponsor 85,000 visas for industries like construction. ABC’s Comstock said his organization supports the legislation and believes that while it won’t solve the problem, it will help bring “quick relief.”
Workers Defense in Texas is responding to the climate change-related heat crisis, especially after an effort to pass a statewide heat safety bill this year stalled. Heat safety workshops and “know your rights” training are planned in August.
“We know that not only is the heat, time pressure to complete a project, and lack of regular breaks a concern because workers can suffer acute incidents of heat illness or stroke but there is also a long-term impact on other body systems that can put folks on dialysis, for example, years down the line,” said Laura Perez-Boston, the group’s director of organizing.
Nationally, the EEOC has reached out to the embassies of different Central American countries in particular, creating memorandums of understanding, holding outreach events and assisting in routing complaints and cases to the right place. It is also looking at creating videos and other media that are easier to share and understand than dense lists of legal rights.
More legal action needs to be taken, Florence said, specifically, investigating incidents like the Moncayo case, assuming a crime may have been committed and putting prosecutorial firepower behind workplace accidents and deaths. Until it is a regular part of a DA’s job, she said, unscrupulous contractors will continue to act this way. Last month, a worker was trapped in a trench collapse on a Brooklyn demolition site, run by a company with a history of workplace violations. The case is still under investigation.
And ultimately, until undocumented workers have some kind of documentation and status and protection, she argues, this kind of exploitation will continue.
“There is an unending supply of people that come from desperate circumstances,” Florence said. “There’s just an inherent tension when you have someone who is desperate to work and has limited options.”