- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

Fred Alger has been out of work for months and, to increase his chances of getting a good job, is thinking about going back to school.

“I went to Hecht’s department store … and they’re hiring, but only at $7 an hour,” he said in a dispatch on a Monster.com chat board last week. “They’re nuts. That’s pretty … low.”

Other unemployed workers venting their frustrations on the job-search Web site agreed, though some said they were so desperate they would take any job, at least temporarily.

“I have a McJob, working 15 hours a week at a Head Start cooking meals,” said a job hunter with the moniker “Pikachuangel.”

“I’m making $7.25 an hour,” little above minimum wage, she said.

“Before I was laid off a year ago, I was making $13.25 an hour. I feel like at times I’m being slapped in the face,” she said, noting she was once turned down for a job at a gas station because she was “overqualified.”

These workers are encountering, and in some cases shunning, jobs that President Bush described as the jobs Americans don’t want in proposing his immigration-reform plan. It would enable employers to offer positions that Americans won’t fill to foreign workers under a “guest worker” program.

The president’s plan does not allow employers to fire highly paid workers so they can hire low-wage immigrants. But it does propose to allow the estimated 6.5 million foreign workers already in the United States illegally — many of whom already hold jobs turned down by Americans — to obtain temporary work permits.

This large, undocumented pool of workers throughout the country — more than two-thirds of whom are from Mexico or other Latin American countries — already constitutes about 5 percent of the U.S. labor force, only somewhat less than the 5.7 percent, or 8 million, of workers who are unemployed.

Many unemployed Americans in today’s tough job market accept that they may have to take jobs at low wages for a while to keep paying their bills. Still others hold out as long as they can for better jobs, making do on a weekly unemployment insurance check — available for six months in most states — or with the help of family and friends.

One unemployed chat-room enthusiast scoffed at the many jobs that seem to have cropped up just since the beginning of the year offering wages in the $10-an-hour range. “My UI pays more than that,” he said.

The result is employers with openings for software engineers, managers, journalists and other skilled professions get flooded with hundreds more applications than they can use. Meanwhile, jobs for nannies, dishwashers, maids and laborers go begging, even after three years of recession and jobless recovery.

A young job hunter on Monster.com who calls herself “Angel” lamented that her parents don’t seem to understand why she cannot find work after looking for two years.

“You could live comfortably being a janitor, butcher, retail salesman or secretary” in their day, she said. “Now, you’re lucky to even be paying rent with those salaries.”

Life on $7 an hour

To Latin American workers, by contrast, the wages offered by such jobs look good, as they are far above what is being offered in their home countries. Many of these workers also have found ways to live cheaply in the United States, sometimes crowding into apartments and houses, and sharing resources with family and friends.

Through scraping and savings, some undocumented workers who earn as little as $7 an hour not only get by, but also are able to send portions of their paychecks home.

Living under such conditions is not viewed as an option by many American job hunters. In fact, Americans find some jobs so repugnant they have largely ceded them to illegal workers.

Between 50 percent and 70 percent of all agriculture workers — grape pickers, meatpackers, chicken processors — are undocumented, according to various experts. Large concentrations of undocumented workers can be found in agricultural states such as California, Florida and Texas.

Undocumented workers also often work as laborers on construction projects, but the fastest-growing areas of concentration are in service jobs, from hotels and restaurants to housekeeping, child care and landscaping, analysts say.

“Large and important sectors of the U.S. economy need undocumented workers,” said Daniel T. Griswold, analyst at the Cato Institute. “They harvest food, build homes, pack meat and serve at restaurants and retail stores. Some of these jobs are so unpleasant you could double the wage and [Americans] still wouldn’t come.”

Rather than take the jobs immigrants are finding, recent American college graduates, who since the recession have faced high unemployment rates, often go back to school or otherwise postpone entering the job market while they continue to live at home with their parents.

“I think I’ll find something else to do for a while,” said a Gaithersburg college senior who is studying pharmacology and is daunted by the tough job market in her field. Asked if she would try getting her foot in the door somewhere through an internship, she said, “not if it’s unpaid.”

Undocumented foreign workers, who often have less than a high school education, aren’t so difficult to please. They typically take jobs at the lowest wages with little or no job security and no health care or pension benefits. By being willing to work in such menial conditions, analysts say they have driven many Americans from the occupations they have come to dominate.

Jobs at meatpacking plants from Iowa to the Carolinas used to be filled by well-paid American workers who often were unionized and bargained for substantial benefits in the 1970s. Today, nearly all those jobs are held by foreign workers who reap few benefits and rarely stay in the jobs for long because of the high rates of injury and exhaustion, analysts say.

Consumers benefit

Studies show that the availability of a vast pool of low-wage and low-skilled foreign workers has acted as a damper on wages for the lowest-paid Americans. But economists say the undocumented workers have benefited consumers by keeping prices for food and other items low.

Consumers can afford many things they could not years ago when Americans filled most of the jobs: eating out frequently, hiring maids and nannies, and having the weekend free for recreation because someone else is mowing and weeding the lawn and washing the car.

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said the bifurcated work force is a result of globalization.

“We have significant immigration in the United States — mostly legal, some illegal,” he told a gathering of bankers in Berlin last week. “It has probably enhanced the standard of living of society as a whole.”

Economists say immigrants have been a boon to the economy not only by keeping inflation low but by helping to fuel an unprecedented boom in housing and adding to the growth in consumer spending that held up the economy during the recession.

Anti-immigration groups argue otherwise.

“Immigration reduces wages. It’s basic economics,” said Steve Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies. It is “antithetical to democracy,” he said, to have “a ‘serf class’ who washes our dishes and cleans our pools and toilets but can’t participate in our system.”

Mr. Camarota advocates strict enforcement of the immigration laws so that the 10 million Americans without high school educations — about half of whom are not working — can fill the jobs now taken by illegal workers. He conceded it would take decades to deport the millions of undocumented workers already here.

Immigration advocates say there is a basic mismatch between the low-wage jobs that are available and the more skilled and educated workers who are looking and available for work.

“I don’t see a lot of software engineers when they get laid off apply to become strawberry pickers,” said Frank Sharry of the National Immigration Forum.

He praised Mr. Bush for having the “courage” to raise the undocumented-worker issue, which in the past has been mostly swept under the rug.

But he said a more realistic way to broach the subject, given the controversy, would be to first liberalize the rules for agricultural workers whose plight, as well as the integral role they play in the farm economy, is well-known and understood.

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