05 September 2006

US: Law reforms cause concern for Colorado employers

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New laws in Colorado are causing concern amongst employers who have seen a dramatic drop-off in applications for job vacancies, and fear huge labour shortages.

Legislation introduced in the state on August 7th makes it a requirement of all contractors working on projects in cities, counties, school districts and other governmental agencies to certify that they have no illegal workers on their payroll.

New workers must be checked through a pilot programme which links employers to an online database that checks names against Social Security numbers to determine if the number is valid, although the database is reported to be only 80% accurate.

The Glenwood Springs Post Independent reports how several employers in the area are now finding they cannot fill positions and in the future will be put off from applying for government projects and concentrate solely on the private sector.

Mark Gould, whose Gould construction company employs around 100, many of them unskilled immigrants, says many Americans are not prepared to do manual labour jobs and without access to an immigrant workforce the skills shortage will be severe.

"Kids are trained on computers, they don't want to dig a ditch," Gould told the paper.

"What's going to happen to our economy if those workers go home? It would mean the loss of about a quarter of the excavators, laborers, masons, concrete workers, landscapers, roofers, drywallers and insulators in the valley," he said.

"So far business has been silent, they're assuming no politician would hurt the economy to make their constituency happy, but that's just what they've done."

Gould's company checks that all employees have the necessary paperwork, but is certain that as many as half of the immigrant populations in Colorado are undocumented workers. Gould currently has 10 positions to fill but only three people have applied as the legislation begins to bite.

The company is now in the process of applying for 15 H2B temporary work visas for his employees, but with an annual quota of just 33,000 visas for the entire country, this is a route to legal employment that is vastly oversubscribed.

What's happening to the Glenwood Springs contractor is not unique and will increase pressure on Congress to pass comprehensive federal immigration reform that many businesses hope will include President Bush's proposed guest worker programme.

Gould says the guest worker program should allow employers to go to Mexico, for example, to choose workers and check their medical background and whether or not they have a criminal record. Most importantly, Gould said, foreign workers need to have biometric identification that contains individual and unforgeable markers such as fingerprints or eye scans.

He added: "We have 7 million workers in the construction industry in the U.S., and we project we'll need 180,000 new workers annually for the next 10 years - that's 1.8 million," Gould said. "That's just our industry, not hospitality or tourism. This economy would be toast if we lost (immigrant) workers."

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