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The dark side of the labor shortage

RCS Dark Side of Labor
January 8, 2024 at 3:00 p.m.

By Dani Sheehan. 

After the New York Times’ recent investigation into the rise of child workers in many of America’s industries, including roofing and construction, we examine immigration and sub crews in roofing while looking at the dark consequences of the labor shortage, including safety, child labor and unfair treatment. 

A recent New York Times article highlighting the rise of child roofers in the industry, many of them migrating across the Southern border without their parents, shows the dark side of the labor shortage and poor immigration policy. According to this article, nearly 400,000 children have come to the United States since 2021, in need of work to pay rent or send money to their families.  

In fact, according to past articles by the same New York Times reporter, this is happening in manufacturing, hospitality and other industries along with roofing. RoofersCoffeeShop’s Coffee Conversations on January 11, 2024, at 7 a.m. PT will hold a conversation with McKay Daniels, NRCA CEO, Trent Cotney, NRCA General Council and Jason Stanley of IB Roof Systems about how the roofing industry is responding to the dark side of the labor shortage while calling for immigration reform.  

The industry’s emphasis on safety and professionalism over the past decades holds a strong record. Well known as one of the most dangerous professions, the roofing industry has been laser focused on the highest safety standards in construction to make sure all roofing professionals go home at night. Led by the National Roofing Contractors Association (NRCA), roofing has been committed to safety for all workers and diligent about child labor laws.

The roofing industry has also seen a huge rise in the use of sub crews. Many of the crews are Hispanic and migrants. On social media, they call themselves ruferitos, often posting videos that further highlight a lack of safety equipment and other OSHA violations in the workplace. Highlighted in the New York Times article, one crew in South Carolina allowed a 16-year-old from Honduras to spend a month working with them. Itzel Sánchez, the crew boss, doesn’t like to turn away children in need, and they are much cheaper to employ. Her crews regularly work without helmets and harnesses because they are too cumbersome, and inspectors don’t visit regularly. She and other subcontractors have turned to children because the labor shortage has made it difficult to find adults willing to do the work. Areas like South Carolina and other Southern states have been particularly affected amid a rising residential building boom and the increase in hurricanes and other natural disasters.  

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) child labor provisions are intended to protect minors from unsafe working conditions. These provisions include limits on the number of hours workers under age 16 may work and hazardous occupations deemed too dangerous for minors. It states that workers under 16 years old can only perform office or sales work in the construction industry. Those who are 16 and 17 can work on construction sites, but federal law prohibits them from doing tasks deemed too hazardous — such as roofing. Cotney warned the industry in a recent article, Top 10 Wage-and-Hour Tips for Employer Compliance, where he advised employers to review their state and local laws and ensure they are complying with limitations on age and shift duration. There are changes at a state level in child labor laws that he will further address during the Coffee Conversation to facilitate hands on experience in a safe and monitored environment.  

Around immigration, foreign-born people make up 30% of construction workers, with tightened immigration policies making it even harder to employ immigrant workers. According to an article from NBC News, the number of new immigrant workers entering the construction industry has dropped by a third since 2017, and there are not enough U.S.-born workers to fill the jobs.  

In parts of the country like the Houston construction market, immigration reform could help ease the skilled labor shortage and control rising project costs. The industry continues to struggle to recruit new workers because many younger people do not consider construction a viable career option. Houston city leaders believe allowing undocumented workers some kind of legal status would reduce project costs by providing a more stable labor pool.  

America was built by immigrants and today’s construction and roofing industries still depend heavily on immigration for an ongoing strong workforce. In every professional roofing company’s safety program, new workers joining the industry whether immigrant or not, are trained to OSHA levels during onboarding and receive ongoing safety training that is documented daily. But with a surge in roofing sub crews, many depending on migrant workers, we have seen that they are not following safety standards. It is an area that needs to be addressed in the roofing community. 

Through immigration reform, these sub crews and workers could receive access to safety and training resources, as well as additional benefits that they previously have had to go without. Currently, less than 10,000 green cards a year are given to people with less education than a bachelor’s degree, making it especially difficult for construction workers to seek legal pathways to migrate. Unfortunately, the plight of these workers remains largely invisible to the public, as they are often exploited and not given equal protection from the criminal justice system. 

The U.S. is dealing with a broken immigration policy. Whether it is in roofing, hospitality, manufacturing or overall construction, within every industry there are unprofessional and unethical businesses that will take advantage of those in less fortunate positions, including children. The NRCA and the roofing industry overall has been working in Washington D.C. for decades to help all parties formulate a strong legal immigration policy.  

According to Daniels, “We continue to urge Congress with every breath we have to address the root cause of this which you note is a broken, backward immigration system that fails both the nation and immigrants virtually every step of the way. We’re 20 years deep in that fight at this point and profiles in courage are few in Washington these days, but we will continue to beat the drum as we’re able.” 

After questions and the investigation by the New York Times, the Labor Department is revisiting several cases involving the injury or death of migrant children. However, none of the deaths in their story have resulted in any child labor fines. Roofing is a plentiful, and well-paying trade, but it is dangerous. As the industry looks to recruit the younger generation and promote skilled labor, we must also look at areas like immigration reform and proper safety training to ensure pathways for safe, successful careers with legal migration options.  

Join us on January 11, 2024, for our next Coffee Conversations, sponsored by IB Roof Systems, as we take a deeper dive into this issue with industry experts Trent Cotney, Jason Stanley and McKay Daniels.

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About Dani

Dani is a writer for the Coffee Shops and AskARoofer™. When she's not writing or researching, she's training for trail races and working on her yoga teaching certification.

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