The Colorado unemployment rate has remained at 2.3 percent, the lowest in the country and very much below what one can call full employment. It is looking like the workforce in our state is being overwhelmed by, well, work.
As Boomers retire, there are not enough others to take their place and the immigrant community that has historically been among those that filled in are either not enough or afraid of the persecution atmosphere that reigns in the country. Two years ago, the same type of atmosphere created by Alabama politicians led to tomato crops rotting the fields and the mostly Latino migrant labor force avoiding the state.
Farmers such as the Pisciotta family in southern Colorado are moving aggressively to avoid a similar outcome as migrant farm workers have stopped coming. “Pisciotta and other farmers say increased raids by immigration enforcement officials on farms and businesses, coupled with new anti-illegal immigration laws passed in Colorado last year, have depleted the migrant-immigrant workforce on which they depended for decades.”
Pisciotta is trying to solve the labor problem by hiring inmates from “the nearby state prison.” The farmers in Alabama tried that without success as the convicts lasted less than a day in the fields because the work was too hard and the pay too low.
Pisciotta and other farmers may be more successful because they are being more selective and are using women in this pilot program that pays more than nine dollars an hour for the work. How ironic that they are willing to pay prisoners much more than they paid the migrant families that came to work their crops year after year.
The construction industry is another area in crisis where the immigrant community plays a large role. The building boom is exhausting the available labor market.
Some of the labor shortage in the area is being addressed using undocumented workers. “An estimated 22 percent of the total construction industry workforce in the United States lacks legal status… [and] in Colorado, the estimates is 20.7 percent.“
The use of undocumented construction workers does not work when dealing with government projects. These projects include infrastructure construction like roads and bridges where “contractors are required to go through the federal E-Verify system that weeds out workers with false documents.”
Given that major infrastructure programs across the nation are being planned by local, state and national governments, the lack of a sufficient labor force puts the initiatives in jeopardy as it “puts...companies in more of a bind when the availability of domestic workers or immigrant workers with green cards are stretched too thin.” A diminishing labor force stands to stop, delay or make the work radically more expensive.
Finally, the retail industry is another institutional sector in difficulty due to a labor shortage as you can walk into a grocery store, a restaurant, a department store or any number of retail establishments and find a help-wanted sign offering competitive wages and even benefits. It looks like the working population is maxing out.
Given the current outlook, it is not enough to say that we are at full employment because the common worker is making less than a decade ago. It is not to enough to echo the political cry for more good jobs because this type of work may not be around the corner.
We do know however, that we are part of a global economy and the search for solutions can start there. This includes allowing a place in our workforce for all immigrants in America.