More and more of the communication on residential
job sites these days is taking place in Spanish. On
balance, that's good news: It means that the
industry's chronic labor shortage is finally giving
way to a large and growing pool of new
But for many builders, it's a trend that also
raises some practical questions and concerns. When
you don't speak Spanish yourself, for example, how
do you give instructions to non-English-speaking
employees or subs? How do you provide OSHA-mandated
safety training to workers who may speak little or
no English? What's the employer's responsibility
for verifying a non-citizen worker's eligibility to
work in the U.S.?
We put those questions and others to three builders
whose businesses largely employ Spanish-speaking
workers. Dennis McCoy is the owner of Ram
Exteriors, a Lindon, Utahbased company that
specializes in structural repairs and stucco work.
Bill Brown is a specialty concrete contractor and
owner of Bill Brown Construction in San Jose,
Calif. Norm Yeager is a general superintendent for
Able Constructors, a Greenville, S.C., company that
does both commercial and multifamily residential
— Jon Vara, Associate
JLC:How important are Hispanic
employees to your business?
McCoy: I couldn't do it without them. In my
experience, Spanish-speaking workers have a tremendous work
ethic. Very few of the Anglo guys in my area seem to see
construction as a career. There's lots of turnover.
But the Hispanic guys are in it for the long haul. They're
willing to start work at seven or eight bucks an hour because
they see that as a first step toward running a crew and earning
60,000 a year, which is what my supervisors make. They see that
as a very worthwhile goal. I have guys who have been with me
for seven years without missing a day or being late once in
that time. About two-thirds of my 60 employees are
Brown: When I started my business, my first
hires were other Anglo guys I knew from high school. None of
them lasted very long. I hired my first Hispanic employee,
Javier Garcia, about 16 years ago. He's still here, and he's
second in command of the company. Six of his brothers have also
worked for me and four of his cousins.
I didn't set out to run a Hispanic company, but that's what
happened. Probably 95% of our employees, including most of our
office staff and project managers, are native Spanish speakers.
The only Anglos are myself and a couple of project managers. It
seemed strange to me at first, but now I'm used to it. The
benefit is that once you get a reputation for treating people
fairly and paying everyone equally, it's easy to attract
Yeager: We're basically a construction
management company — we have about 25 employees, but
almost all of the field work is done by subs. The subs
themselves are typically Anglos, but I'd guess that close to
50% of the workers are Hispanic. In our area, it varies from
trade to trade. There seems to be a higher percentage of
Spanish-speaking workers in the building trades, like
drywalling, framing, and roofing, than there are in the
JLC:When you hire a Spanish-speaking
worker, do you need to be concerned about the possibility that
he or she might be an illegal immigrant?
McCoy: One of the things I love about this
country is that the rules are the same for everyone. You've got
to follow the rules, but they don't let you discriminate based
on what language the person speaks or what they look like.
Basically, when you hire someone, you have to see proof of
their identity and proof that they're eligible to work in the
U.S. For most Hispanic workers, that means a "green card." You
also have to fill out an I-9 form for each employee and keep it
on file, and I make photocopies of their documents and keep
them with the I-9 (see "Employment Eligibility and
Employment Eligibility and Documentation
In the eyes of the law, hiring a
Spanish-speaking employee is no different from
hiring anyone else. "You can't tell whether someone
is a citizen or not by looking at them or listening
to the way they speak," says Immigration and
Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson Ernestine
Fobbs. As an employer, you're responsible for
obtaining the same documentation from every new
hire, whether they're a close family member or a
complete stranger with limited English.
Three things are required: You need to see
documentation of the potential employee's identity;
you need to see proof that he or she is eligible to
work in the U.S.; and you need to fill out a
one-page I-9 form, Employment Eligibility
Verification, and keep it on file for a specified
length of time. If the immigration authorities want
to inspect your I-9 records, you're required to
produce them within three days.
The ABCs. U.S.
Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)
divides employee-provided documents into three
groupings, identified as Lists A, B, and C.
So-called List A documents, such as a U.S.
passport or a permanent resident card —
commonly known as a green card — establish
both identity and work eligibility. If the
applicant doesn't have a document from List A, he
or she can produce two other documents to
accomplish the same thing: a driver's license or
equivalent document from List B to establish
identity, and a List C document — such as a
social security card or U.S. birth certificate
— to prove employment eligibility. Although
it's not required, it's good practice to make
photocopies of the document or documents provided
and file them with the employee's I-9 form.
You can find a short version of the rules for
completing Form I-9 on the
USCIS website. For more
complete instructions, including lists of
acceptable forms of documentation, go to the
documents section of the
site and print out document M-274, Handbook
Good faith. What
if an employee provides counterfeit documents, or
documents that are genuine but actually belong to
someone else? The law provides what's described as
a "good faith defense," which recognizes that
employers are businesspeople, not document
"Green cards," for example, come in a number of
different versions, depending on their date of
issue and other variables. As long as you act
"reasonably" in examining employee documents and
completing and filing the required I-9 forms, you
can't be held liable for any irregularities that
may come to light later. (The only exception to the
good faith defense is when the government can show
that an employer had actual knowledge of a worker's
Going too far.
You can get in trouble for not getting enough
documentation from your employees, but you can also
get in trouble for demanding too much. If the
documents an applicant provides meet the legal
minimum and appear genuine, you're required to
accept them at face value.
For example, if a job applicant offers an
apparently valid permanent resident card, you can't
also ask to see a voter registration card and birth
certificate. As a List A document, the permanent
resident card alone is enough to establish both
identity and eligibility for employment, and
demanding more or different documentation could be
an unfair immigration-related employment practice
Rolling the dice with
day labor. Finally, it's worth noting that
employers who make a practice of hiring "day labor"
— undocumented, short-term workers who are
paid in cash by the hour — may be putting
their businesses at risk. According to construction
attorney Gary Ransone, there's more at stake than
the possibility of being nabbed by the ICE for
failure to complete and file the required I-9
"A lot of people seem to think that day laborers
aren't statutory employees," Ransone says. "They
put them in a separate category they've created in
their own minds. But once you put someone to work,
they become your employee whether they're
officially on the payroll or not."
And as a matter of law, Ransone explains, day
laborers are entitled to the same rights and
protections as other employees, including insurance
protection. If a day laborer is seriously injured
on the job (an all too common occurrence, given the
limited skills and lack of experience on the part
of many such workers), and you can't show that the
worker is covered by your workers' comp policy, you
could be in big trouble.
"If that happens, you're likely to get flipped over
into the uninsured risk pool," Ransone says. "The
government can come after you and put liens on your
possessions to recover costs."
— J. V.
You're not expected to be a private detective, but you do
have to use common sense. I recently had to turn a guy away
because he offered me a green card with a picture of his face
obviously glued over the photo printed on the card.
Yeager: The subs tell me there's a sort of
"don't ask, don't tell" policy in effect. I think most of them
do check documents and fill out the right forms. But if someone
is a good worker and his papers check out, the prevailing
attitude is that you do as little as possible without getting
your tail caught in a wringer. Getting the job done is the
Brown: I like to run my business on the up and
up, so I'm very careful about how I hire people. I always check
documents and file the paperwork. But forged papers are so
common that you can never be sure whether a worker is legal or
JLC:Once you do the required document
inspections and complete and file the I-9 forms, do the
immigration authorities ever ask to see them?
McCoy: No one has checked so far.
Brown: Usually we check documents and file the
form and that's the end of it. But every few years we get a
letter from the Social Security Administration telling us that
an employee's social security number doesn't work. In some
cases, it's just a mixup over the mother's maiden name, because
families in Mexico sometimes switch back and forth between the
mother's last name and the father's last name from one
generation to the next. But we've had to fire people in cases
where we couldn't sort things out.
JLC:Do most of your new hires already
have the skills you need, or do you hire unskilled people and
McCoy: Almost all of our long-term employees
started out as low-skilled laborers. You can tell pretty
quickly who has what it takes to learn the trade, and then you
train them. The low turnover rate makes it worth taking the
time to do that. Maybe it's a matter of motivation, but in my
experience, the Hispanic guys seem to be natural craftsmen
— they take to doing things right away.
Brown: We do a lot of concrete work, which
means that we need a few highly skilled guys for things like
setting steel and doing layout, while the rest is mostly a
bunch of heavy labor. In the San Francisco Bay area, where
we're located, all the concrete workers come from one area
south of Guadalajara. If you know one of them, he'll know lots
of others. It's almost like a union hall. The same thing is
true of family connections, which are very important among
JLC:Do you speak Spanish
Brown: I'm a student of Spanish. I took a
Berlitz course, and I can usually make myself understood. I can
follow the guys on the site unless they start talking really
fast, and then I have to ask them to slow down. But almost
everyone on our office staff speaks Spanish fluently. So if I'm
interviewing a job applicant, I may start out in English and
Spanish, but if I get confused, I'll have Margaret Garcia, our
dispatcher, come into the room and translate for me.
McCoy: I'm fluent, which has been a huge help.
But I know other contractors who get by fine as long as their
crew leader speaks English well enough to interact with subs
and communicate with the rest of the crew.
Yeager: I only speak a few words of Spanish.
In fact, only one of our supers speaks Spanish at all, and he
speaks a sort of pidgin Spanish.
JLC:Do you offer any incentives to your
employees to learn another language, whether that's Spanish or
McCoy: I tried sending a couple of my Anglo
supers to a Spanish language class, but it didn't work —
I think they only went once. But the Spanish-speaking guys,
especially the younger ones, are very motivated to learn
English. A lot of them like to listen to language cassettes
that they buy on their own. I tell them just go ahead and
speak, don't worry about how it sounds. The best way to learn a
language is by using it a lot.
Brown: If you came into our office and
listened to what was going on, you'd probably hear as much
Spanish as English being spoken. We've also offered English
lessons to our employees. We hired a teacher to come in two
days a week and hold English classes in our conference room
after work. There were two levels — beginning and
intermediate. It was pretty popular, and it did improve
people's English. We'll probably do it again sometime.
Yeager: We've never tried that. The way we
deal with the language barrier is to make sure that our subs
send a lead guy who speaks both Spanish and English, so he can
pass along instructions to the workers who speak only
JLC:Are there times when language
differences lead to preventable mistakes?
Brown: We have a saying we use all the time:
"Si usted no entiende, no diga que entiendo," which means, "If
you don't understand, don't say that you do."
What sometimes happens is that the Hispanic foreman speaks some
English but isn't completely clear about the directions he's
getting in English. You're there talking and he wants to get
back to his work, so he says, "Okay, sure," even though he's
not really sure what you mean. If you don't catch the problem
in time, you might have to tear out a bunch of work and do it
McCoy: I'm careful to take as much time as
necessary to be sure everyone understands what needs to be
done. A related problem is that some Hispanic guys are so eager
to keep the job moving ahead that they'll try to do work
they're really not qualified to do. They'll try to move a wire
themselves, or risk driving a nail through it, rather than
calling the electrician. I encourage my employees to call me
when they have a question about anything, no matter what it is.
I try to reward them when they do, and I let them know how much
I appreciate it.
Yeager: I actually can't think of a time we
had to do anything over because of a language problem. Even
when the sub doesn't provide someone who can translate —
they're supposed to do that, but it doesn't always happen
— it's not hard to show people what you want done. We're
talking about commercial construction, not complicated chemical
formulas. I've always found that the Hispanic guys are very
willing to listen and learn.
JLC:Are there any cultural differences
between Hispanic and Anglo employees?
McCoy: My experience is that even though the
Hispanic guys are tough and hard working, they're very
sensitive in some ways. If an Anglo guy screws something up,
you can chew him out and it will all be forgotten about the
next day. But if you hurt a Hispanic guy's pride, there's a
good chance he'll quit the job. If you mess up a guy's pay one
week, even if it's an honest mistake, he'll remember that for a
I've also found that the foreman of a Hispanic crew has to have
the right kind of personality. The Hispanics who work for me
look to the toughest, hardest-working guy as their leader, and
if you give the position to someone else, you'll have problems.
Anglos seem to have more respect for credentials — you
can have a pencil-necked geek as foreman and things will work
out somehow. Respect for the person is more important among
Hispanics. Maybe this has to do with culture, or maybe it's
just that the language difference makes people want to stick
together and feel that someone they trust is looking out for
Brown: Courtesy and respect are very important
to Hispanic workers. You never want to yell at someone, for
example. A Hispanic guy will see that as a serious challenge
— it would be as if you went over and pushed him. If I'm
upset with someone, I may let him know by giving him the silent
Yeager: I think a lot of Americans don't
understand how few opportunities for advancement there are in
Mexico. On one of the jobs we worked on, there was a guy on the
drywall crew who was actually a medical doctor in Mexico. My
wife and my daughter are both nurses, so I talked to him a
little bit, and he seemed like the real thing. He was a guy in
his forties with kids who he wanted to send to college, and he
could make more money hanging drywall in North Carolina than he
could as a doctor at home.
JLC:What about things like holidays and
vacations? Do you give your employees any of the Hispanic
holidays off, like Dia de los Ninõs [Children's Day,
April 30] or Diez y Seis [Mexico's Independence Day, September
McCoy: We don't. For my workers, a bigger
issue is that they want to work on American holidays.
Thanksgiving means nothing to them, for example. They complain
about having to take the day off. We do a lot of stucco rehab
work on existing houses, and I have to explain that we can't
work on a day that people are spending with their families. We
usually end up working a Saturday to make up for
One thing I do have to deal with, though, is that a lot of the
guys really like to go and spend a few weeks with their
families in Mexico over Christmas. I'm okay with that. Our work
is seasonal anyway, so it's not a big problem. It's something
you have to be open to, or you'll end up losing good
Yeager: I've never heard any of our subs
mention any Hispanic holidays. I'm sure they exist, but no one
we work with takes them off.
Brown: We don't offer paid holidays to our
field employees, but we have a pretty liberal policy about time
off. As long as you find someone to cover your job, you can
take a day whenever you need to. I can't even remember the last
time someone just didn't show up for work.
JLC:Do you ever encounter any prejudice
against Hispanic employees on the part of customers or subs,
and if so, how do you deal with it?
McCoy: In my experience, that depends on where
you are. When my business was in Southern California, you did
find some prejudice. In Houston, where one of our crews is
located, it's absolutely not a problem. Here in Utah, there's a
little hesitancy on the part of some homeowners. We do a lot of
repair work, so we often work on occupied houses. I always take
the time to introduce the project foreman to the homeowners,
which really seems to boost their confidence level.
Brown: There are quite a few bigots out there.
Some Anglo subs have a habit of referring to Hispanic workers
as "kids" or "boys." There's not much you can do about other
people's attitudes, but sometimes you have to take a stand
against it. My employees are more important to me than my
relationship with a sub who happens to be a bigot.
Yeager: I think they may feel threatened that
Hispanics are starting to move into the more lucrative
positions in the industry. But I think that will change as
Hispanic-owned companies become more numerous. The industry is
definitely headed in that direction.
JLC:How do you handle required safety
training when some of your employees speak English and some
McCoy: We're fortunate to have a safety
monitor who's completely bilingual. Along with one of our
estimators, he worked on construction projects in Central
America as a Mormon missionary. When we have a training
session, we start by telling everyone what we're going to be
doing in both Spanish and English. That slows things down a
little, but it's not a big problem. Then we break into an
English-speaking group and a Spanish-speaking group for the
actual training. It's easy to get videos and other training
material in both Spanish and English now.
Brown: We farm out a lot of our safety
training by bringing in trainers from outside companies. There
are quite a few companies in our area that provide training in
both English and Spanish. We also pay to send employees to
seminars so they can be certified as a Qualified Person under
the OSHA regulations that cover things like fall
Another thing we did was to make a Spanish-language video about
our company safety practices. The husband of one of our
architects works for a local Spanish TV station, and he also
runs a small video production company; he made us a nice video
for around $2,500. It's been very useful for showing new
employees what's expected of them.
JLC:Safety standards in the U.S. and
Mexico can be quite different. Do you have to make an extra
effort to get Hispanic workers to be safe?
McCoy: Definitely. I've spent a lot of time in
Mexico, and I've seen some very dangerous construction sites.
Workers there get used to living with risks that we see as
unacceptable on this side of the border. It takes a lot of work
to overcome that.
I've found that the best way to do that is to stress the fact
that safety is important to me — not only because I don't
want anyone to get hurt, but also because it can cost me a lot
of money. I'm the one who has to pay the fine if someone isn't
using fall protection. If you don't make that clear, you can
have people cutting corners on safety because they think
they'll make the boss happy by getting the job done
Brown: Safety is a matter of culture — I
mean company culture, not whether you're Anglo or Hispanic. If
you make it clear that safety is a priority, people will take