A Casual Betrayal
A small business owner discovers doing the right thing can have a steep price
By Mark Cromer
This column was first picked up in March 2007 by the McClatchy-Tribune News Service and was published by newspapers all over the nation, including The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina to the San Diego Union-Tribune in Southern California.
Kirsten Stewart is not the kind of American that President Bush and the Democratic congressional leadership is likely to bring up as they renew their push for so-called comprehensive immigration reform.
Stewart is not an impoverished illegal immigrant “living in the shadows,” nor is she a businesswoman who can’t seem to find an American willing to work at a fair wage.
To the contrary, she is a landscape professional trying to do the right thing—a decision that’s effectively putting her out of business.
As a 40-year-old, college-educated woman living in Santa Monica, Stewart has pursued her dream of running a landscape design business for four years, the last two of them on her own.
Even in the highly competitive market for well-heeled clients in LA’s Westside neighborhoods and along the glittering Hollywood foothills, Stewart was confident that her design talents and strong word-of-mouth referrals would guarantee her a solid customer base for her business.
It almost certainly would have, except for one thing: she won’t hire illegal immigrants for her work crews.
When she submits a bid to a prospective client, Stewart calculates her labor rate at $15.00-an-hour or more depending on the job; it’s a decent wage with which she knows she can hire American citizens. Paying a living wage to her workers is also at the core of the progressive political identity she forged while living in San Francisco, Berkeley and Portland.
But she has watched that egalitarian vision end up in the garbage bin as competing designers submit bids with labor costs radically lower than Stewart’s—a strong sign they are using illegal immigrants for their work crews.
When she first moved to Santa Monica in 2002, Stewart says she was somewhat oblivious to illegal immigration and its impact on local communities and businesses.
“Coming from the Bay area, I was clueless about illegal immigrants and the scope of the problem,” she says. “Consequently, I hired a few of them. It was just what everyone else was doing, it’s engrained in people’s lives here on the Westside.”
Stewart says she employed a bilingual illegal immigrant who has lived in America for over a decade as her foreman, and he would hire the rest of the crew from day labor centers or off the street.
It wasn’t long before she began to feel that there was something inherently wrong with her hiring illegal immigrants; something that hurt her community more than it helped her bottom-line. Something utterly hypocritical.
“I realized that my foreman, who has been in the country a long time, doesn’t have any desire to be a citizen. He has such a strong allegiance to Mexico,” she says. “And he doesn’t want to pay taxes, which is his own bottom-line.”
But it was Stewart’s pregnant nanny from Brazil, also without papers, that pushed her to make a dramatic change.
“She told me that she was so happy that she was having her baby here because [her child] would get a real Social Security number. She told me how surprised she was at all the ‘free’ neonatal care she was getting and all the other ‘free’ health services,” Stewart says. “That’s when the light bulb went off. That’s when I knew this was totally messed up.”
Stewart fired her nanny and stopped hiring her foreman. For all future jobs, Stewart says she vowed she would only use workers legally in the country.
Almost immediately, she started losing bids.
In a bitter irony, Stewart says many of her prospective clients are dyed-in-the-wool Leftists who embrace living wage ordinances and stronger worker’s rights laws. Except, apparently, when it comes to their job sites.
“They will invariably ask me why my labor costs are so high,” Stewart says. “I tell them point-blank it is because I only use legal workers, either citizens or legal residents. I’ve had a few prospects just stare at me silently after I have told them that, like I have done something wrong. Others have just said ‘Ok, well thanks for the bid.’ And that’s that.”
Stewart estimates that she has lost probably 30 jobs (ranging in price from $5,000 to $20,000) in the past two years as a result of her ‘legal-only’ hiring practices; a financial hit that has forced her to wind down her business.
Since she says she can’t bring herself to go back to hiring illegal immigrants, Stewart is resigned to either moving out of state or, more likely, pursuing a different line of work.
The experience of trying to do the right thing has left her feeling helpless and embittered.
The government offers no oversight or enforcement that she can turn to for help; its traditional role as a neutral enforcer of the law to ensure a level playing field gleefully abrogated. The political establishment throughout Southern California is preoccupied with pushing broader freedoms for illegal immigrants than with protecting American workers.
And the same Westside liberals who Stewart has watched get indignantly red in the face over corporate outsourcing and wage rollbacks suddenly start sounding like Tyson Food executives when it comes to hiring Americans. Worker protections, living wages and fair employment practices seemingly evaporate when it is a nanny, gardener or handyman working personally for them.
“I can’t compete by playing honestly in an industry where most everyone else is breaking the rules,” Stewart says. “And they aren’t breaking the rules because Americans won’t do these jobs. They are breaking the rules because they don’t want to pay a decent wage. They are breaking the rules to jack their profit line higher.”
Stewart is bracing herself as the cliché-riddled debate over illegal immigration kicks back into high-gear, knowing that she is likely to hear politicians rail about a broken system.
She knows better.
“The system isn’t really broken at all,” she says. “The system would work just fine if the people had the honesty to play by the rules of the system and if the government had the guts to enforce the rules on those who choose to break them. But then that would be too easy, wouldn’t it?”