Here at Paradise Lost, many have predicted that the collapse of the real estate bubble in Florida would result in the loss of jobs for construction workers. Not only that, the prediction was that since a large portion of the construction work has been done by illegal labor, those job losses wouldn't be reflected in the unemployment numbers. Courtesy of the Herald-Tribune, some light has now been cast on the subject.
'With the huge drop-off in the state's formerly hot housing market, Latinos are leaving Southwest Florida for places offering more work or taking jobs that pay less.
Construction permits across the region were down as much as 66 percent in recent months, and with 50 percent of Southwest Florida's construction industry staffed by Latinos, the shift is likely to have a big impact on that industry and perhaps the region's general economy.
The impact goes beyond construction companies to rental managers and shops catering to Latinos.'
Up to this point in the article, I keep seeing the word, "Latinos" mentioned, but nothing about their residential status. Then this.
'"The majority of us here are illegal," said Benjamin Ramirez, a 34-year-old framing subcontractor from Bradenton, who has worked in the United States illegally for about eight years. " For us, when the work is gone, it's just no more."'
So, what are the options for this "silent workforce"?
'Many Latinos are moving to other areas, such as Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states where residential construction is still strong.
At the same time, lower-paying jobs in agriculture, food service and retail are reclaiming workers as they wait out the construction downturn.
About six weeks ago, Ramirez was called to a meeting with Lennar Homes, the big Miami-based developer and the biggest home builder in Southwest Florida.Ramirez, who had subcontracted for Lennar for three years, was told there would be no more work.'
And as predicted here, the loss of jobs for these guys is not being reported. Because, then the employers would have to admit they were breaking the law this entire time.
'Though the overall unemployment level has remained relatively unchanged in Florida, unemployment claims in construction have risen 63.37 percent since June.
That measure greatly underestimates what is going on because of the vast number of undocumented workers in the sector and its heavy reliance on subcontractors.
"Many of these workers may never have been included in the jobs figures," said Mark Vitner, a Wachovia Bank economist, who focuses on the Southeast. "Many may be working as independent contractors and still have jobs but just not be as busy."'
And the personal tale of the Ramirez subcontractor is very interesting.
'The best documentation of what is happening comes from the workers.
Benjamin Ramirez and his 31-year-old brother, Ricardo, said construction jobs in Southwest Florida have evaporated.
"Last year was nice. Everybody had a job. And there were a lot of houses to build," Ricardo Ramirez said. "This year there's no work."
The brothers came to the United States about eight years ago from Toluca, a congested industrial suburb of Mexico City, known as Mexico's Detroit because it is home to DaimlerChrysler, Nissan, General Motors, BMW and Mitsubishi plants.
They learned the construction trade on the job in Indiana, and moved to Southwest Florida three years ago.
Together, they formed The Brothers Ramirez Construction Co. of South Florida. They built up a base of 60 full-time independent contractors and began working with Lennar
With the downturn, the brothers thinned their crews to a handful of close friends and immediate family.
One crew went to Indiana, one crew went to Miami and one crew went to Tampa," Ricardo Ramirez said. "Others wait. They are sleeping on the couch or playing soccer -- not much of anything -- until there's more work."'
And surprisingly, enforcement of illegal labor laws had a banner year in 2006.
'Last year, employers and workers saw unprecedented enforcement of immigration laws, with more arrests for immigration violations at job sites nationwide than any other period in recent memory
Add to that new rules from Homeland Security designed to prevent employers from hiring undocumented workers, by checking for mismatched Social Security numbers. Employers are now becoming leery.
Wendy Smith, an attorney with employment law specialist Fisher & Phillips, knows why. Her firm began counseling clients about six months ago to be cautious in hiring decisions. Picking up an undocumented worker carried the threat of criminal charges
"We told our clients, 'You have to tighten up and get your house in order,'" Smith said. "We said, 'You know what? This is coming. And with the no-match letters, it's going to be: You can run but can't hide.'"'
And what's happening in these immigrant communities when the jobs have dried up?
'Property managers and owners in Southwest Florida catering to Latinos have been hit with unexpected vacancies
About 25 percent of the 1,400 units that Harvey Vengroff owns are rented to Latinos, and he has more than 40 vacancies
"I'm getting a lot of stories. It's really a very different world than it was last year," said Vengroff, also the owner of one of the world's largest collections companies, Vengroff & Associates. "Last year, people had more money because there were plenty of construction jobs".
Evictions are up.
"We have a huge problem of people who are nice people, but they are taking in other family members. And we are evicting them. It's not because they are not nice people. It's just not conducive to having a good neighborhood," Vengroff said.'