Labor Pains

Daquane Mitchell, Wilkerson Catule, and Steve Dufrene,
working at Fenway Park, got a break not shared by
many other black teenagers.

as director of the city of Boston’s job training programs, Conny Doty keeps a close eye on workforce trends and economic forecasts. But some of her best intelligence comes from her own field research, usually involving an iced raspberry coffee.

“What I used to say to people when we were really feeling the recession a couple of years ago was, you’ll know the recession is over when you have a teenager waiting on you at Dunkin’ Donuts rather than an adult,” says Doty. “But now I have to revise that.”

In past recessions, says Doty, adults who lost better-paying jobs made ends meet with entry-level positions, but when the economy improved, the young people who traditionally worked these low-end jobs got them back. But this time around, she says, even as the economy has picked up, these jobs are still held by older adults, many of them with accents.

“I think the immigrants have now sort of supplanted them,” says Doty of the teens she no longer sees in many retail jobs.

Whereas in the 1990s immigrants provided the only source of new blood for an otherwise shrinking Massachusetts population subject to recurrent labor shortages, in the new century there is concern about the downside of immigration. Whether it’s the falloff in teen employment, a tougher climate for lower-skilled workers, or the transformation of parts of the construction industry into off-the-books operations paying substandard wages, some say the impact of immigration is being felt by those least able to take the blow.

Though it has not erupted into overt tensions in the Bay State, competition for entry-level jobs between native-born blacks struggling to get into the economic mainstream and immigrants fleeing Third World poverty has caused flare-ups elsewhere. And it’s raising questions about the lack of any meaningful connection between US immigration policies and labor market needs. Even in the land of opportunity, could it be that there’s just not enough opportunity to go around?

STRIKING OUT

Steve Dufrene is moving fast up and down the aisles of the grandstand at Fenway Park, toting a cooler full of frozen lemonade treats. “It’s going real good,” he says on a Sunday in mid-June, not referring to the Red Sox, who are in the process of falling to the Texas Rangers. He’s talking about his new job hawking refreshments to the Fenway faithful.

It was not easy to come by. The 17-year-old Dufrene and two other black Boston high school students got the coveted positions thanks to Emmett Folgert, executive director of the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, an after-school program in the Fields Corner neighborhood. With help from the Boston public schools and the Police Athletic League, Folgert landed three slots from the handful of vendor jobs that Aramark, the company operating concessions at Fenway Park, had earmarked for Boston youth. Before that, Dufrene and his two friends—Wilkerson Catule, 16, and Daquane Mitchell, 16—had been pounding the pavement for months, hitting every shopping mall in the area in a hunt for part-time jobs, all to no avail.

“We go everywhere, you name it—Watertown, Braintree, Galleria,” says Catule. After a while, he and his buddies got so used to the standard brush-off that they started supplying it for store managers, after they filled out job applications. “We say, ‘We know, you’ll call us back,’” says Catule.

“It just seems like they take the application and they stick it in a drawer,” says Dufrene.

The break they got at Fenway Park is not widely shared by other black teenagers, who have been squeezed out of entry-level jobs and other lower-skilled positions in the recent period.

Overall, youth employment is way down. The employment rate for native-born 16-to-19-year-olds in Massachusetts last year stood at 42.2 percent, down from 48.1 percent in 2000. The national employment rate in 2005 for this age group was 38.2 percent, down eight percentage points from 2000 and the lowest ever recorded in the post–World War II period. But it is black male teens who have been especially squeezed out of the job market.

The national employment rate for 16-to-19-year-old black males fell by a staggering 20 percent from 2000 to 2005, the same percentage decrease seen in the overall young male population. But African-American males had even less room to fall than other groups, as they started out with an employment rate in 2000 of just 27.8 percent, more than 10 percentage points lower than the rate for young Hispanic males (38.8 percent) and almost 24 percentage points lower than the rate for white males (51.7 percent).

And who, has knocked these young people out of the job market? Immigrants, according to Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.

In Massachusetts, immigration has been indispensable to the state’s economy. It spelled the difference between the modest population growth the state has recorded since 1990 and the losses it would have otherwise experienced (see the MassINC report The Changing Face of Massachusetts: Immigrants and the Bay State Economy).

But in the “jobless recovery” years since the 2001 economic downturn, the continued growth of the immigrant workforce had a very different impact. Immigrant arrivals since 2000 have accounted for nearly 90 percent of all new workers in the US in the last five years, a figure higher than for any other period over the last 60 years. And according to Sum, this largely lower-skilled, uneducated population has greatly increased the competition for entry-level jobs.

“Immigrants are playing a very different role in the job market, both nationally and locally, since 2001,” wrote Sum and Paul Harrington, deputy director of the labor market center, earlier this year in CommonWealth (“Where did the workers go?” Winter ’06). There is “now reason to believe that the work obtained by immigrants is coming in part at the expense of native-born workers, especially young adults with low education and skill levels.”

Lower-skilled immigrants are increasingly competing against native-born workers.

The Boston Private Industry Council, a business-funded workforce development agency, runs a summer jobs placement program for Boston teens. The jobs are usually split roughly evenly between those in the retail sector and positions in hospitals, banking, insurance, and other settings that offer good long-term prospects. The former offer less in terms of a career path, but nonetheless foster development of what those in the workforce field refer to as “soft skills,” the comportment and judgment that come with customer service jobs. While the number of career-track summer jobs has actually increased slightly in recent years, retail placements are down 40 percent compared with five years ago, says Neil Sullivan, executive director of the agency.

“That’s driven in large part by an adult immigrant workforce that is available to work year-round,” he says. “What we thought was a recessionary drop in the retail jobs is actually a ‘structural realignment,’ in labor market terms.”

COMPETITORS—OR COMRADES IN ARMS?

Concern about immigrants squeezing American blacks out of jobs is nothing new. Writing in the 1880s, abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass warned, “Our old employments by which we have been accustomed to gain a livelihood are gradually slipping away from our hands. Every hour sees us elbowed out of some employment to make room for some newly arrived emigrant from the Emerald Isle, whose hunger and color entitle him to special favor.”

The recent wave of immigration has raised a red flag in places other than Boston. In Philadelphia, a Latino city councilor’s call for a new municipal office to lure and settle immigrants was met with anything but brotherly love. The head of the local African-American Chamber of Commerce was among those speaking out against the proposal, pointing to studies showing that the heaviest impact of immigration falls on native-born workers at the low end of the wage scale.

Most of the country’s established black civil rights leaders, however, have embraced immigrants in common cause. But that official solidarity may be masking a level of discomfort over immigration at the ground level.

“I think there’s a tension, there’s no doubt about that,” says Rev. Ray Hammond, a prominent black Boston minister. Hammond, a leader in the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, a social action coalition of religious and community groups, has been outspoken in advocating for the cause of immigrants. In April, he co-authored an op-ed in The Boston Globe with Rev. Hurmon Hamilton, a fellow black minister, headlined it’s our fight, too.

“In Boston, the Black Church is here, standing alongside our immigrant sisters and brothers fighting for reasonable, just, and humane immigration reform,” wrote the ministers. But they took note of worries about blacks and immigrants being “pitted against one another for the limited unskilled jobs in a service economy.”

The two ministers have heard about those worries firsthand. Hammond says one parishioner confronted Hamilton, asking him, “Why are you supporting [immigrants] when they are taking jobs that members of our community or our youth would otherwise have access to?”

Still, anti-immigrant backlash from blacks seems more muted here than in other US cities. One reason may be that Boston’s black community has itself long been an immigrant melting pot, fed by a steady stream of arrivals over the decades from English-speaking Caribbean nations, Haiti (Boston has the third largest Haitian population of any US city), and Cape Verde.

Another activist minister points out that the leading iconic figures in black Boston over the last 50 years, political activist Mel King and arts and culture impresario Elma Lewis, were both children of immigrants from Barbados. “The cross fertilization and mix has been consistent for years,” says Rev. Eugene Rivers, “so there never was a time for the nativist phobias against foreigners to develop here in the black community.”

And then there is the fact that many of the Boston youth losing out to immigrants in the job market are themselves first-generation Americans. “Increasingly those adult immigrants are the parents of our high school kids,” says Sullivan, of the Boston Private Industry Council. Indeed, of the three frustrated job-hunters from the Dorchester Youth Collaborative who are now feeding fans at Fenway, two of them, Wilkerson Catule and Steve Dufrene, are sons of Haitian immigrants.

ATTITUDE ADJUSTMENTS

Compounding job competition between immigrants and native-born blacks is a feeling that some employers would rather hire the newcomers. Chris Tilly, an economist at the University of Massachusetts–Lowell, is co-author of Stories Employers Tell: Race, Skill and Hiring in America, a book based on surveys and interviews with employers in four US cities, including Boston. “There were a lot of negatives views of African-Americans and a lot of positive views of immigrants,” says Tilly. The preferences often turned on “work ethic, on ability to interact well with customers, with supervisors,” he says. “Things that might be summed up as ‘attitude.’”

Ben Thompson, executive director of Boston STRIVE, a Dorchester job placement and readiness program for ex-offenders and others with limited work experience, says some of his agency’s clients, from the West Indies, worry that their immigrant background might be a hindrance to getting hired. But he tells them that the reverse is often the case. “Employers want the accent,” he says. “The perception is that people from the islands go to work every day.”

Some leaders of the black community acknowledge that there’s some truth behind the stereotypes. “The employers have a legitimate case when they assert that too many native-born black youth are poor employees,” says Rivers. “They show up late, leave early, have irregular attendance. The black community institutions should be socializing these kids to be employer-friendly. If we don’t, no employer is obligated to take a kid with some funky attitude and work skills.”

“Rather than spending time saying society is against the brothers,” says Darnell Williams, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, the focus should be, “what is the skill set you need to obtain in your tool bag to move forward?”

“Education and training is more important now than ever,” says Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, the author of When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. Lamenting the high drop-out rates among black males, Wilson says, “their chances of finding a decent job are nil.”

With fewer employment options at the low end of the job ladder, Sullivan, the Boston Private Industry Council director, says today’s teens need to aim higher, recognizing that post-secondary education, not just high school graduation, must be the new benchmark.

But for those who aren’t college bound, shrinking opportunities for entry-level work are a serious problem, says labor market researcher Harrington. Those who gain work experience while in their teens have higher long-term earnings, he says.

“When employers say kids don’t have the right attitude, in fairness there is something to that,” he says. “But the way you get a good attitude is you get that early work experience.” And the lack of an early employment track record can doom job seekers when they are just starting out.

“A 21-year-old kid comes into your office and says, ‘I want a job,’” says Harrington. “You ask him, ‘What kind of work have you done?’ and he says, ‘None.’ That tells you everything you need to know.”

UNDERGROUND AND ABOVE

If Wilkerson Catule and his friends had a hard time landing a job, Huy Dinh, another regular at the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, has had little trouble picking up work when he wants it. “There’s family jobs, there’s illegal jobs, and there’s legal jobs,” explains the 16-year-old son of Vietnamese immigrants, who knows all about the first two types.

Working for relatives, he’s done stints sanding floors and helping out at a local nail salon, two businesses dominated by the Vietnamese in the local market. Meanwhile, through connections in the Vietnamese immigrant community, Dinh has also found day-labor work packaging catalogues for national clothing retailers. Where, he’s not exactly sure: A van scoops up workers as early as 6 a.m. and takes them to a warehouse in a suburb north of Boston, where Dinh has worked a 12-hour shift for $90 in cash.

Such stories have become increasingly common, as high overall rates of immigration—especially the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US—drive a burgeoning underground economy. “The black market has widened considerably in the last five years,” says labor economist Sum. “There are far more jobs off the books now than in 2000.”

High immigration has fueled a ‘black market’ of low-wage, cash-only jobs.

Evidence of that, says Sum, can be found in the growing gap between two measures of employment used by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. One tracks jobs on formal payrolls, as reported by employers, while the other is a survey of US households that collects information on all types of earnings. And states with the highest levels of recent immigration show the biggest gap between the number of people who say they are working and the number of workers companies say they are employing.

Construction is one of the industries with a huge increase in off-the-books employment, state officials and labor leaders say. “In the residential building trades, it’s rampant,” says state Rep. Michael Rodrigues, the House chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development. “People don’t even hide it.”

“Construction has always been the place for non-college educated, blue-collar kids to have a ladder of advancement,” says Mark Erlich, head of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters. Immigrants and their children have found legitimate places on that ladder, too. But undocumented immigrants have changed everything, he says.

“Employers are making an industry-wide, unilateral decision to make what had been a moderate-wage industry into a low-wage industry,” says Erlich. “What had been $18-an-hour jobs have become $11-an-hour or $10-an-hour jobs.”

Harvard economist George Borjas estimates that immigration to the US from 1980 to 2000 has served to lower wages by about 5 percent for those without a high school diploma, or more than $1,000 a year for a low-income household with an annual income of $25,000. “These dollars don’t disappear from the economy,” says Borjas. “The people who are getting these are employers. There’s a huge redistribution of wealth going on.”

In May, a Boston Herald report described several locations in the Boston area, including a Somerville park, where immigrant workers gather each morning hoping to get hired by contractors to put in a day’s work “under the table.”

“There are no industrial relation laws at Foss Park,” says Harrington. “There are no wage and hour laws, there is no workers’ compensation system. There’s just exploitation.”

And in June, The Boston Globe reported that millions of dollars in state construction contracts have been awarded to firms employing illegal immigrant workers, with more than half of the workers on some projects using questionable or clearly phony Social Security numbers.

“It’s sort of the domestic equivalent of outsourcing, in that you keep looking for a less expensive labor source,” says Nicolaus Mills, a professor of American Studies at Sarah Lawrence College in New York and author of Arguing Immigration: The Controversy and Crisis Over the Future of Immigration in America.

Rodrigues views the underground economy from two vantage points. As labor-committee co-chairman, the Westport Democrat worries about its effect on living standards for workers. And he worries about its impact on his family’s 45-year-old floor covering business, a sector that has seen a big infusion of off-the-books contractors.

“I’m legit and I pay a fair wage. I pay workers’ comp insurance. I make my contributions to unemployment insurance, and on and on,” says Rodrigues. “And I’m trying to compete against [businesses that] hire for cash under the table.”

Ali Noorani, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigration and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, says the “overarching problem” brought on by illegal immigration is the “unequal playing field that employers are able to take advantage of.” National immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, says Noorani, is the best way to combat any degradation of wages and working standards caused by undocumented aliens.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

But that alone won’t address the impact of having so many largely uneducated workers competing for a shrinking pool of low-skill jobs. Current US immigration policy is driven largely by the principle of family reunification, while other developed countries place much more emphasis on matching immigrant skills to workforce needs.

“This is without a question the most disconnected, disjointed, unrealistic immigration policy in the world,” says Harrington. “There is no industrialized country that has an immigration policy as disconnected from the labor market as the United States.”