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Illegals change the homebuilding industry

By BRIAN FEAGANS/Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 03/12/06

David Shafer glowered at the dozen Hispanic construction workers pumping nails into a row of townhouses in Suwanee. The busy crew was another reminder that even as home-building boomed in metro Atlanta, his nail gun was silent.

Shafer, a third-generation home builder, scribbled his rage onto a scrap of Sheetrock and pointed the makeshift sign toward traffic on Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road. "Help Support Illegal Aliens," it read. "Buy a New Home Here in Georgia!"

It was December 2004. Shafer, a subcontractor specializing in framing homes, was out of work and living off his wife's salary.

Unwilling to hire illegal immigrants, Shafer believed he was getting outbid by construction crew chiefs who did use the lower-wage laborers. Laws against hiring illegal immigrants go largely unenforced in the construction industry, sometimes penalizing those who play by the rules.

"I can't get a job because these guys work so cheap," he said, motioning to the crew behind him. "I'm going to have to sell a coin collection to buy my wife a Christmas present."

Shafer didn't know what to think when immigrants from Latin America started arriving by the thousands a decade ago. They helped transform his native Gwinnett County from a predominantly white suburb to an immigrant magnet now home to more than 100,000 Latinos, the largest such population in Georgia. Shafer would do a double take every time he drove by another shopping center aglow in Spanish.

But when he sensed those newcomers were forcing him to change, he didn't like it.

Now, at a time when all levels of government are grappling with illegal immigration, Shafer embodies the sentiments of many Georgians. He's certain the immigrants are damaging him but doubtful that elected officials will solve the problem. And each day Shafer struggles to reconcile his antipathy for lawbreakers with his respect for people willing to travel 1,000 miles for a better life.

Shafer said his problem isn't with Hispanics. One of his best friends — his brother-in-law — is Mexican-American. Shafer's beef is with a marketplace that gives an advantage to subcontractors who hire workers here illegally.

By that December day in Suwanee, Shafer had grown as bitter as the wind signaling the end of another construction season without a paycheck. He had just started taking the antidepressant Zoloft. Gone was the happy-go-lucky Cub Scout leader whose previous activism was limited to raising money for the neighborhood swim club and the Collins Hill High wrestling squad.

Though he didn't know it, Shafer was about to enter a year of reckoning. The blueprint that his grandfather and father used to build their careers no longer applied. The dimensions had changed almost overnight.

A 10-year wave

Hispanics accounted for 8 percent of metro Atlanta's construction laborers in 1990, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The figure had shot up to nearly 50 percent by 2000. And most observers believe the percentage is far higher now.

Economists and home builders say immigrants satisfy demand for low-skill labor and make new homes more affordable. A significant but hard-to-quantify number are in the country illegally, however. "You never know," said Rafael Villegas, executive director of the Hispanic Contractors Association of Georgia. "You never ask."

About 14 percent of construction workers were undocumented around the country in 2005, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research group. The figure is probably higher in metro Atlanta but still well under half, said Douglas Bachtel, a demographer at the University of Georgia. Even so, illegal immigrants could account for up to 40 percent to 50 percent of the regional work force in house framing — Shafer's domain — and other backbreaking trades such as cement and roofing, Bachtel said.

Hiring them comes at little risk because immigration agents pay no attention to illegal construction workers. "We don't have the resources to patrol construction sites, to be quite frank," said Kenneth Smith, director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement's office in Atlanta.

It's impossible to know how much of Shafer's woes stem from illegal immigration. Two builders who hired Shafer in the past but did not want to comment for this article described him as an excellent house framer. And few in the industry dispute that many framing crews have illegal immigrants.

Some builders liken hiring those workers to jaywalking. Yes, it's technically illegal. But in the real world, they say, it's practically unavoidable, especially when workers submit fake documents.

Shafer, on the other hand, is a man of straight lines. He can't stand to see a row of studs that don't line up perfectly. And as he tried to understand why his family could no longer compete in the only profession they'd ever known, he got few straight answers.

Things would get worse for Shafer before they got better. The foundation of his career would crack. And so would he.

Family of framers

The impromptu, one-man protest lasted one day. Shafer, married with two children in college, stopped after his family complained he was embarrassing them.

The sign-waving didn't feel right to Shafer anyway. Shafers had always worked without complaining. Callused hands meant full wallets.

In a trade with its fair share of tattoos and beer guts, Shafer has neither. He's clean-cut and fit for a man of 51. He could be mistaken for a golf pro. But Shafer was raised to swing a hammer, not a club.

"When I was a kid," he said, "if you saw a carpenter in Gwinnett County, he was kin to me."

By the time Shafer graduated from Berkmar High in 1973, he and his three brothers were framing ranch homes for his father, a former mayor pro tem of Lilburn. Shafer soon went out on his own, hiring his own crew. He eventually specialized in framing mansions in exclusive neighborhoods such as Country Club of the South. He worked on homes for comedian Jeff Foxworthy, Atlanta Braves star Chipper Jones and ex-Brave Ron Gant.

Shafer earned more than $100,000 in 1999, a personal best. His family vacationed in Cancun, Mexico. Life was good. Shafer thought that as long as people in metro Atlanta wanted homes, he'd be building them.

Bids that weren't close

The change was subtle. At first, Shafer figured he'd just hit a rough patch.

But as Shafer searched for framing work, it was as if he was competing in a new market. Builders told him his bids weren't even close. And his U.S.-born carpenters, who were now out of work, too, said the going hourly rate had dropped well below the $15 to $20 Shafer had traditionally paid.

Shafer said many of his crew members eventually switched to commercial construction or left the business altogether, unwilling to work for such low wages.

Immigrants tend to suppress the wages of low-skill workers and raise the pay of higher-skill positions, according to a 2003 study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. And while unemployment rates have been largely unaffected, people in specific occupations can be harmed, said Jeffrey Humphreys, director of UGA's Selig Center for Economic Growth. "The highest effect is probably on these independent contractors that are not hiring illegals," Humphreys said. "Higher up the food chain, you're less likely to find people affected by this."

Out of work, Shafer took out a loan and used the free time to build his own 6,200-square-foot, five-bedroom dream home on Lake Lanier. It was fully loaded — vaulted ceilings, granite countertops and all. "I could do the dishes and look out over the lake," he said. "I thought I'd retire there."

But the dry spell of work turned into a drought, and Shafer was forced to sell the $550,000 lake home and move to Dawsonville. Then, in 2003, Shafer got into a dispute over a home he was framing in Forsyth County. He said he left the job more than $44,000 in the hole.

The loss couldn't have come at worse time. Shafer's construction business was in shambles.

Now when Shafer got outbid on framing jobs, he would drive back to see the crew that did get the work. They were always Latino, he said. Illegal immigrants, he reasoned, must be forcing down wages.

Shafer spits nails upon hearing the official statistics. The median construction wage in metro Atlanta increased from $13.93 per hour in 2000 to $14.99 per hour in 2004, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The figure for carpenters edged up slightly, from $15.00 to $15.37, during the period.

But Shafer said many payrolls never show up in those numbers. Some crew chiefs pay illegal immigrants under the table in cash, a practice Shafer says he's seen firsthand. Others know their workers are using fake Social Security cards and look the other way. Shafer also knows crew chiefs who list illegal immigrants as independent subcontractors rather than employees. That way they don't have to withhold taxes, issuing the workers 1099 forms instead.

Frustration builds

In the months after his roadside protest in Suwanee, Shafer peppered police chiefs, immigration agents and elected officials with e-mails demanding an end to the hiring of illegal immigrants. No one wanted to take responsibility, he said.

Shafer's family worried about him. His father, 72-year-old Charles Shafer Sr., said sometimes he felt as if he led David and his other three sons down a dead-end path. "They like to see a pile of lumber, turn it into a good-looking, long-lasting home," Charles Sr. said. "I hate that they can't do that anymore."

David's younger brother Robert adjusted well, moving up the industry ladder to general contracting. But the eldest brother, Charles Jr., has had the toughest time, fighting off foreclosure on his Lawrence-

ville home as he struggled to find house-framing work like David. Charles Jr. has been active with several anti-illegal immigration groups, something David says he's avoided because the groups are too easily labeled racist.

Hire like everyone else

Dennis McConnell, who sits on the board of the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association, said immigrant workers, both legal and illegal, are instrumental to construction in the region. "There's only so many Bubbas coming off the farm," said McConnell, who also sits on the board of the National Association of Home Builders. "The traditional sources for cheap labor just aren't there."

McConnell, who builds in intown neighborhoods such as Virginia-Highland, said he has no doubt that there are illegal immigrants on his work sites. "That's why we hire subcontractors," he said. "It's their liability, not ours."

For most of his career, Shafer has been one of those subcontractors. "I could go out tomorrow and hire an illegal crew," he said. "But my parents raised me different."

If you can't enforce the rules, Shafer barked, then change them. "Make them all legal, give them driver's licenses and make sure they're paying taxes," he said.

Shafer fumed in April as he helped his younger brother Robert construct a medical official building in Loganville. Robert had given David the framing contract, his first in two years.

As David vented about illegal immigration, a group of Latino workers hauled sheets of drywall across the construction site. The crew chief overheard David's rant and walked over to needle him. "Is he complaining about the Mexicans again?" he said. "Come on, David, get yourself a crew of Mexicans and work 'em like everyone else."

A personal implosion

By September, anger had infested the foundation of Shafer's nearly 30-year marriage, not to mention his relationship with his kids. His daughter had decided to elope knowing her father was in no shape for a wedding, Shafer said.

The family had already dipped into his wife's retirement. And now there were mounting attorney fees. Shafer had filed suit to reclaim more than $44,000 he lost during the framing contract dispute that had nearly bankrupted him two years earlier. The man he sued countered that Shafer actually owed him money because of shoddy work.

Shafer considered getting out of the framing business and going to work for someone else. But he'd been his own boss for more than 30 years and recoiled at the thought.

Now that same independent streak mixed with his mounting bitterness to cloud Shafer's judgment. He stopped taking antidepressants.

Stripped of the drugs' protection, Shafer felt the anger chew deeper inside him. Then he imploded.

Shafer telephoned his brother-in-law in Tennessee. "I told him he needed to come take care of his sister," Shafer said.

He thought he might die that day.

In the depths of a nervous breakdown, Shafer reached for his gun. "I just freaked out," he said. "I was saying things I shouldn't say."

Once word got out that Shafer was losing grip, his father raced over from Roswell. John Silva, his Mexican-American brother-in-law, rushed over, too. Silva hugged Shafer and reminded him of all the people who loved him, the ones worth living for. "I told him, 'Sometimes you've got to let go,' " said Silva, a banker from Marietta. " 'It's not all about work and money.' "

As Shafer sobbed on Silva's shoulder, he could almost feel the anger rise from his back. "I decided there's nothing worth my life," Shafer said. "I got to thinking there's all these battles, these demons. I've just got to move forward."

Shafer put the gun away.

Rather than pull the trigger, he released his stubborn grip on the old life, the one where he grows gray as a carpenter and retires to Lake Lanier. He decided to focus on all the things he still had going for him. "I've got great kids and the best wife in the world," he said.

Shafer's frames had always been designed to last many lifetimes. Tearing one down and replacing it was unthinkable. But now he was ready. He would rebuild.

Looking for a job

Shafer got back on antidepressants. And though he's not much of a churchgoer, he started reading the Bible at night. "It's taught me the things I can change and what I can't," he said.

For now that motto is helping Shafer navigate through a world that still looks out of kilter. And it's unclear where his journey will lead.

Shafer still feels like immigration is out of control. He says Mexico is taking over the United States "without firing a shot." But Shafer also doesn't want to isolate himself from Spanish-speaking immigrants. He believes his future is inextricably linked to theirs. "It broke my heart when I lost my company and I couldn't compete with them," Shafer said. "Hell, everybody's an immigrant here except the American Indians."

Committed as ever to not hiring illegal immigrants, Shafer has decided to give up house framing. Now he hopes to land a position supervising construction for a larger company. His greatest challenge: finding a new spot in an industry hooked on illegal labor without using it himself.

Shafer could end up in a position where he doesn't do all the hiring. And that troubles him. The best he can do, he says, is make clear up front that he doesn't want to work for a company that looks the other way when it comes to immigration status. Shafer said that demand has already turned off some potential employers, but he's trying to stay upbeat.

His new control-only-what-you-can attitude was on full display last month. He turned down an opportunity to speak before state senators considering a bill designed in part to make illegal immigrants less appealing to employers. Georgia can't fix what is a federal problem, Shafer said. And besides, he'd rather spend the time on his latest endeavor — learning Spanish.

Shafer bought a set of instructional CDs. And while installing windows these days, he takes advantage of being around all the Spanish-speaking workers. "I try to strike up a conversation," he said.

At one construction site in Rockdale County, Shafer glided past an all-Latino crew preparing to lay the driveway. As they busily swept up a cloud of red clay, Shafer recalled the reaction of one worker who overheard him practicing Spanish. "He said 'Se habla Espanol?' " Shafer said, laughing. "I said 'un poco,' which means a little."

A little Spanish, yes, but a big step for Shafer.

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