Guest columnist Cristobal Cavazos: It's not laziness that's at root of our worker shortages
Don Roberto (real man, altered name) mid-60s, in his apron, stood in the drive-through window of his Naperville taqueria -- one of only two workers there, "It's just that, you know, people these days are lazy, they don't want to work anymore," he said.
His new BMW shone in the moonlight. Not so bright was the din of the Huffy bicycle of his cook Don Jorge, flipping tortillas and taco meat in the kitchen, not so far behind Roberto in years, tucked away next to the back door by the dumpster.
There is a worker shortage in the service and manufacturing sectors. COVID contagions and even deaths played a role -- 36,000 Illinoisans gone -- contributing to the "Great Resignation" above all in the service sector, warehouses and manufacturing sectors, "the supply chain." Said Andrew Weaver, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's School of Labor and Employment Relations, "The sectors that face the biggest challenges are the ones frankly, with the lowest job quality. [Those employers] really haven't had to offer a lot of flexibility or benefits to their workforces in the past to recruit them and at some level, that's coming back to bite them."
Meanwhile, in this fray and less well known -- compounded by Trump era anti-immigrant rhetoric, Obama-era 3 million-plus deportations, a militarized border, abusive temp agencies that now "staff" warehouses and factories around the area so that such companies have close to zero liability to those who make, ship, package and store their products headed down the supply chain -- Illinois has lost more than 100,000 Mexicans.
The growth of the immigrant population over the last decade has slowed to a crawl, with a net growth rate of 0.4%, much of this coming from Asian immigration. Of course, the pro-worker reforms of Mexican President Andres Manuel López Obrador have played a role in luring Mexicans back south of the border, as did also the insatiable greed of so many corporations in the past decade subjecting workers to speedups, workplace injuries and deaths and the replacement of permanent work for temp-agency gig workers often in the same factory sometimes on the same day with the E-Verify system, obliging workers to quit the company and be rehired now by the temp agency.
Latino workers, by the way, accounted for 22.5 percent (1072 deaths) of workplace deaths in 2020. For Latino construction workers, the death rate was 41.6% higher than the rate for other workers.
E-Verify, a system that traces its origin back to post-911 hysteria to ostensibly weed out possible terrorists working for government agencies, was rapidly redirected toward Mexican workers, particularly those on union drives. In spite of all this with the COVID lockdown and quarantine, the workers who were disproportionately out there making, baking, raking and caretaking were Mexican undocumented workers, over three fourths of whom are essential workers.
Hit five times harder by COVID in DuPage County while the least likely to have health insurance or sick days, our community is still reeling trying to get it back together emotionally and financially. Close to 60% of Latino immigrants lost a job or took a major economic hit during COVID.
Not to mention the lack of affordable housing -- it's hard to buy a $600,000 Wheaton home on a $14-an-hour salary.
In the face of a predicted shortage of more than 2 million American manufacturing workers by 2030, we can't continue for long in lieu of opening up the border -- which even conservative Ronald Reagan was in favor of and/or ensuring jobs of dignity and decency, with a living wage, up and down the supply chain.
Temp agencies by the way, are one of the industries that most fears just and comprehensive immigration reform. Their workers would dry up.
On the issue of workers, to quote Pope Francis: "You can't speak of democracy without trade unions" -- unionized jobs, too, to more fairly distribute the wealth. With all due respect, Don Roberto, I think the worker shortage is more an issue of fairness (or lack thereof) than it is of laziness. And when you see a Mexican, thank them.
• Cristobal Cavazos, of Wheaton, a member of the Daily Herald editorial sounding board, is co-founder of Immigrant Solidarity DuPage and an activist for the Latino community in Chicago's Western suburbs.