What is not impossible is getting an opinion regarding immigration from those in the HVACR field. In an unscientific poll, NEWS readers responded en masse to a recent three-question online survey regarding this emotional topic - and, for the most part, those who took the time to state their case on the issue did not mince words.
"My personal take is that the illegal issue is very simple," said George L. Rodriguez, owner of ServTEC Air Conditioning Inc. (Santa Fe Springs, Calif.). "The federal government is not enforcing the immigration laws already on the books. Legal Hispanic immigrants, like myself - or even generational legal Hispanics - are dismayed and saddened at the conduct of the federal government in not protecting us. Legal vs. illegal, that is the question!"
Meanwhile, 86 percent of those who answered The NEWS' unscientific survey noted that not a single employee from their respective contracting firms walked out that day, nor did they participate in the one-day demonstration.
When asked for their input on the immigration issue, some did refrain from exposing their personal thoughts, but the majority did not hesitate to provide their take on the emotional social subject.
"We should build a wall first to stop the flow," was one respondent's comment. "Then we can worry about what should be done with the people who are already here."
"Anyone coming to the United States to work and start a family, pay taxes, and do it legally, I do not have a problem with," wrote another respondent.
"It is the contractors that hire immigrants illegally for less than $3.50 an hour that drives this country down. Shame on them. Think: Buy American, not Mexican/China."
Foy Fuller of Air Dynamics (Huntsville, Ala.) was more direct. "Heavily fine businesses that use illegal immigrants," he wrote. "No amnesty. Build a fence. Deport. Enforce!"
Wayne Mulholland of TriCounty Mechanical (Azle, Texas) was even more blunt.
"Immigrants who crossed our border illegally have committed a crime," he wrote. "No matter who spins this fact, any concessions given to them is amnesty. Let's seal our borders and prosecute employers who hire illegals."
That's not to say there weren't those who had the opposite view.
"People have a right to work and prosper," said one respondent. "If they are not thugs, then they should be encouraged to work here. They should be considered an asset to any country - people who want to work, that is."
In truth, some were ... well ... more-than-blunt.
(For a full report on comments made to The NEWS, see the sidebar "Readers' Views on Immigration" below.)
Steve Saunders, CEO of Tempo Cooling and Heating (Irvin, Texas), gets upset when he hears such, what he would term, scathing attacks.
"We had about half of our Hispanic folks out," said the Lone Star contractor, referring to May 1. "I was impacted in an unusual way in that my personal sense of justice and outrage at the unfair perceptions and an unappealing rhetoric targeting the Hispanic population, who does the dirty and heavy lifting in this economy.
"So, we told all of our folks that they were OK if they chose to walk out. And, we issued a public statement of support for the values and effort of all the Hispanic workers in our community - both documented and undocumented. ... The debate is infuriating, not to mention frightening, if you are Hispanic and undocumented or Hispanic with friends and family who are likely undocumented."
(Saunders agreed to provide his insight on the subject with The NEWS. See his guest editorial in this issue "Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor ... Or Have We Forgotten That?".)
"My personal observations are that without the Hispanic labor, the construction industry in California would come to a screeching halt," said Rodriguez. "There are two separate and distinct sectors within the HVACR industry: the labor-intensive [installation], prone to illegal immigrant labor, and the technical [service], demanding higher and higher skills.
"The latter I can attest to because that is all I see in the supply houses: training seminars or higher educational training. The service side of the industry requires technical and soft skills necessary to service the residential and commercial customers."
In Rodriguez's case, he entered the United States through El Paso, Texas, in 1954 at the age of 9. His family applied for legal, permanent residency - a green card - and the process took 1.5 years to gain legal entry.
"I resided in El Paso until after graduating from high school in 1963," he said. "We moved to the L.A. area, where I found a job with an air conditioning company in 1964. In 1966, I applied for citizenship. My older sister applied for citizenship in 1961. Meanwhile, my younger sister applied in 1965, and my mother applied at the age of 76."
In truth, he does not understand why others cannot just follow the laws of the land. After, as he put, "a long and interesting career working for somebody else," Rodriguez started his own company in 1987, concentrating his efforts in the commercial sector. His son is now involved in the business.
"The Bush administration is wrong by not enforcing the current immigration laws," he said. "A society cannot last long when its own laws are selectively applied. The Latinization of the United States will forever change this country, and I fear the change will be for the worse."
In Texas, the state ACCA chapter did poll its members and issued a printed statement regarding "this very important issue," per Todd McAlister, executive director of ACCA-Texas.
"There has not been a lot of visibility in Texas with regards to the issue," thought McAlister, "which seems a little strange. However, most of our members do have an opinion on the subject."
In the printed statement, ACCA-Texas said it's "keenly aware of the effect that laborers have in Texas, both legal and illegal in nature. Many creditable HVACR companies across the state use subcontracting firms to help with installations, and these firms may employ illegal immigrants, either on a full-time or part-time basis. As well, many companies may directly employ illegal immigrants involved in the HVACR industry here in Texas.
"The responses from the completely voluntary poll were as diverse as the Texas population. However, a majority of the respondents (90 percent) stated that the United States border needed to be more secure, that those individuals who choose to break the law should somehow be punished, and that all laws and statutes should be fully enforced."
In the release, ACCA-Texas provided some specific comments provided by members, including:
In the end, the state chapter stated that all companies in Texas "should be held accountable for their hiring practices and that all laws should be fully enforced with regard to immigration issues."
"ACCA-Texas will support all laws and regulations as they relate to immigration, including any new statutes that will become law," it concluded. "ACCA-Texas firmly believes that all industries should be held account able for their methods of hiring and practices that include illegal immigrants, and that current law should be more tightly enforced to level the playing field for all."
When asked what he thought of the issue, Lou Jennings, executive vice president of Metro Mechanical Inc. (Phoenix), said he believed "the longer an immigrant is here, the more valuable to America he or she becomes."
"They've put down roots," he said. "Their children are golden. They go on to earn as much as natives, and pay taxes that compensate for the welfare costs of the first generation."
Being a union contractor, Jennings said all of the front-end documentation is done at the union hall at the time of dispatch. "Personally, I do not know of a single contractor who employs illegals willingly," he said.
"There's just too much liability from many aspects. I am also sure that there are situations where, inadvertently, a person was hired who was not legal. From my experience, particularly with larger HVACR commercial-industrial contractors in the Arizona market, illegal immigrants are not a major force in the labor pool."
Unions have, as he put it, "a semi-legitimate" concern that large numbers of illegal workers "lower wages for U.S. workers." However, he said the effect is "so modest that after a zillion studies, no economist can agree upon how much wages are reduced."
Even though Florida does not border Mexico, it is believed to still have its fair share of immigrants, documented and undocumented. It appears, though, businesses are treading carefully with this issue.
"We, as a state organization, have not taken a position on this issue," said Ken Bodwell, who helped organize the ACCA-Florida chapter and is also CFO and partner with Innovative Service Solutions (Orlando). "With regard to hiring immigrants, I cannot answer that for all companies involved. However, I am sure that we will find immigrant employees in most companies."
In Service Solution's case, Bodwell said it employs "at least 70 percent Spanish-speaking field technicians. They are from Mexico, South America, Puerto Rico, and the islands." It's all about needed manpower, he explained.
"Manpower is a major issue facing the HVACR industry. However, we cannot employ unskilled labor, and we can only dedicate a portion of our new hires to trainee levels," said Bodwell.
"In most areas of Florida, the technician must speak English. We are sending service technicians into peoples' homes and businesses. We do not sort our customers by race, creed, or color, but we must provide them with a noncontroversial skilled employee to receive continual business from them.
"The language barrier is no different than long hair or earrings in a male's ear: Some customers will not accept. We keep as near a generic look as possible to avoid conflict. Skill levels overcome a lot of the other barriers. Therefore, the focus is on skill level."
FEEDBACK REQUESTED... Your thoughts on the immigration issue? For potential inclusion in the Letters section, please e-mail them to Letters@ACHRNews.com. Or, mail your comments to: Letters to the Editor, c/o The ACHR NEWS, 2401 W. Big Beaver Rd., Ste. 700, Troy, MI 48084. In all cases, include name, title, employer, and city/state of employer.
- Foy Fuller, Air Dynamics, Huntsville, Ala.
- Joyce Wallace
- Frank Bonavita
- Rich Mentzel
- James Walker
- Bob Pruden
- Bill Porupsky
- Warren Whidden
While contractors can suggest that employees take night classes offsite, a more common approach is onsite workplace classes, according to Sandra Powell, an Illinois state-approved ESL teacher with 23 years' experience.
A typical approach, she said, is to offer two-hour classes twice a week, usually at the start or end of a shift. One hour is part of the employees' workday, for which they are paid regular wages, while the employees volunteer their time for the other hour.
Employers pay a fee to the community college or literacy group, which sets up the program and provides the teachers. Powell said the commitment often consists of multiple eight-week cycles, as it may take up to 100 hours of contact time to see improvements in English comprehension.
She said employers can require such classes for job retention, but it is more common to provide them as an incentive for promotions. She said the organizations providing the training do not get involved in determining such incentives, nor do the groups take any position regarding citizenship or the legal status of the employees.
Unlike bilingual education, ESL classes are taught strictly in English, meaning employees with a variety of first languages can take the same class.
Classes can be geared for general English comprehension or can be work-specific, such as the correct English terminology for tools and equipment.
For more information, go to www.proliteracy.org.
Publication date: 06/19/2006