Finding work in Colorado | SteamboatToday.com
Michelle Perry

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Finding work in Colorado

Saðl Hernandez waded through waist-deep water to pull weeds in a smoldering cotton field in west Texas.

That was the better life he was looking for when his third attempt to illegally cross the United States border proved successful.

“It’s hard, but it’s hard to live in Mexico,” Hernandez said. “There’s plenty of work, but the jobs don’t pay well.”

He now has a green card and works legally as an Automotive Service Excellence-certified repair and service technician at Chapman’s Automotive in Craig. He’s satisfied that the risk was worth a job that pays a decent wage.

But Hernandez is a rare case. He’s one of only a few Hispanics who live and work in Craig.

Commuter culture

April Valencia, cultural diversity coordinator at the Colorado Workforce Center, estimated that only 10 percent of Craig’s 1,000 Hispanic residents work in Moffat County. Those who live and work near Craig typically work in fast food, construction or hotel industries.

Usually, those who come to Moffat County end up working in Steamboat Springs, where the jobs are, and living in Craig, where housing is less expensive.

The ones who commute to Steamboat spend money on gas or the Steamboat Springs Transit bus, but they make more money in the resorts or on construction sites.

Of the total Moffat County work force, 21.2 percent commuted to Routt County for their jobs in 2000, according to the 2005-06 Yampa Valley Partners Community Indicators Project. The statistics do not distinguish between Hispanic and non-Hispanic commuters.

Scott Ford, a counselor in the Small Business Resource Center at Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs, said such a large commuting population can create social issues in the familial and community structure.

Workers spend much of their time commuting to Steamboat, leaving less time for their families and a weaker sense of community where they live.

Numbers increasing

Audrey Danner, executive director of Yampa Valley Partners, said the number of Hispanic workers in the area is increasing.

“We can obviously see a change in our population, in our immigrant population,” she said. “Since the 2000 Census, we’ve certainly seen a Hispanic increase in population and immigrant population nationwide.”

The 2000 U.S. Census reported that Hispanics from Spanish-speaking countries constitute 13.7 percent of America’s population.

They were projected to make up 10.5 percent of Moffat County’s residents by this year, Danner said.

“We are a changing population,” she said.

Some employers have tried to embrace the change, learning Spanish to communicate effectively or encouraging legal Hispanic employment in the United States.

The right skills

Tom Kourlis has been importing ranch hands for 30 years, largely because local workers are not interested in — and, often, not qualified for — the jobs he gives to Mexicans, Chileans and Peruvians.

“It’s a skill they’ve been around all their lives,” Kourlis said. “That’s something they still do in those countries.”

As Americans migrate toward urban areas, fewer and fewer generations are raised with domestic and agricultural skills, he said.

“(People now) know how to play Nintendo, to drive cars, even work on cars, but that’s not what we do here on the ranch,” Kourlis said.

Cattle rancher and Moffat County Commissioner Darryl Steele has employed the same family for five years. They manage 200 head of cattle on his 3,500-acre property for almost three-quarters of the year.

“I trust my whole place to these people. You get a good person and you want to bring that person back,” he said. “The people from Mexico I’ve hired have expertise to do the job so I didn’t have to stay on top of them as a supervisor.”

Steele brings them to the United States on H-2A visas, under the title livestock worker, which allows them to stay as long as nine months. Sheep herders who are defined as “nonimmigrants” — meaning they are temporary workers who don’t intend to move here permanently — can stay in America for as many as three years. They can travel freely between Mexico and the United States during that time.

At Chapman’s Automotive, Hernandez has learned the job like any other worker, shop owner J.B. Chapman said.

“It’s no different than anybody who would come in here and say, ‘Hey, I want to learn about this. Will you teach me?'”

He also interprets between Chapman and Spanish-speaking customers, which Chapman said requires an understanding of the technical details of the work and a marketing talent to convince the customers when work needs to be done.

But not everyone at the shop was as accepting of Hernandez. Chapman said one Anglo employee quit soon after Hernandez was hired.

“He had talked some rumor that he wasn’t getting a raise because a Mexican was,” Chapman said. “And you know what? I am just as glad that he’s gone, if he acts that way.

“Job performance is where it’s at. It doesn’t matter the color of skin.”

And it didn’t bother Hernandez, either.

“I feel comfortable with people that think (Mexicans are) good or people who think we’re not good,” he said. “I just try to be me and do things that are good.”

Paying the bills

Kandy Kropinak, an employment specialist with the work force center in Craig, said the H-2A program gives Mexican nonimmigrants a leg up. Many do not have high school diplomas, but, thanks to the visas, are able to send their children to college.

Sheep herders and ranch hands earn $8,400 to $9,600 annually here. Kropinak said it’s better money than the nonimmigrants would be making in their native countries.

“It’s not good for us, that’s why Americans don’t do the work,” she said.

Hernandez works side by side with Americans, and he said he makes much more money here than he could have dreamed of making in his hometown of Ciudad Camargo, Chihuahua, Mexico.

There, laborers made 50 to 60 pesos, or $5 to $6, a day. Hernandez made $14 an hour — 18 times as much — when he started as a roofer in Craig.

Ranchers who want to import workers are required by the U.S. Department of Labor, which issues H-2As, to first advertise locally through a job service and well-circulated newspaper. Ranchers must interview anyone locally who is qualified before applying for H-2A workers.

“So we’re not displacing American citizens in this program,” Kropinak said.

Ranchers typically find workers on their own, via recommendations from other workers or through recruiters. Then, Kropinak assists them with their paperwork.

She also inspects the nonimmigrant housing conditions at the 52 ranches in her territory, from Little Snake to Glenwood to Walden. She looks for cleanliness, food supply and ways to cook, wash clothing and bathe. Each residence must have a first-aid kit and fire extinguisher.

“Our bunk houses are generally very nice,” Kropinak said. “The idea is we want to keep the workers safe while they’re here. We use American standards, not out-of-country standards.”

Temptation

Kropinak has been working with H-2A workers and ranchers for 15 years, and she said the number of ranchers who use the program has tripled in that time. She suspects ranchers are realizing the benefits of the federal program.

“The ranchers in this area could not do this job without these workers,” Kropinak said.

However, the expensive, time-consuming application process deters some ranchers. Steele could get illegal workers in four days, instead of the several months he waits for his documented employees.

“These are ranchers who want to do it the right way,” Kropinak said. “It’d be 10 times easier to walk out and get illegals.”

Nonimmigrants often get delayed at the border by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service. “Coyotes,” or people who earn money for smuggling illegal immigrants across the border, can get Mexicans into the United States cheaper and sooner than the government program allows.

“The ranchers I know are bringing them up legally, and they don’t want to go out of the system,” Steele said. “But there’s that temptation.”

Obstacles

Even when nonimmigrants reach their destinations, they and their employers have to jump some hurdles to make their relationship work.

Cathy Vanatta, executive director of the Craig Chamber of Commerce, predicted some of the problems associated with a foreign work force long before those issues came to fruition.

As a member of the Northwest Colorado Workforce Board, she heard about the difficulties other counties experienced with Spanish-speaking employees.

“We knew it was a problem. It was just a matter of time until we saw that here,” Vanatta said.

The Chamber offers names of interpreters to interested employers, and many Hispanic workers take jobs with family members so they can communicate with one another. Nonetheless, the language barrier makes hiring Hispanics impractical for some employers.

“There’s a lot of qualified people in that population that would be in those positions, but the language barrier can keep that from happening,” Vanatta said.

She said some employers have learned Spanish to accommodate the changing staff makeup. Gonzalez has been watching interactive videotapes to improve his English. At the auto shop, Hernandez and Chapman have a friendly bet to see whether Hernandez can learn the business’s computer system quicker than Chapman can learn Spanish.

Valencia also has heard of equal exchanges, when one night, all conversation will be in Spanish and another night will be all in English “so they both learn.” Some employers even offer English courses for their employees.

But the language barrier is not the only impediment the work force faces with foreign workers.

Illegal immigrants may submit fraudulent documents, such as fake I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification forms, to get jobs.

“It’s not up to the employer to know whether it’s legal or not legal, as long as it looks legit,” Valencia said.

Chapman said he does what he can when hiring immigrants, getting I-9s and copies of employees’ driver’s licenses and Social Security cards. If there was a suspicion, he’d check on the worker with Immigration and Customs Enforcement or help that employee get citizenship.

Some employers, he said, will pay illegal employees “under the table,” giving them untaxed cash pay, to avoid being caught.

Work force center employees are not allowed to ask immigrant workers whether they are here legally, and Valencia said all immigrants are granted the same rights.

So, even if foreign workers are here unlawfully, there’s not much anyone locally can do about it.

“We’re not the INS,” Valencia said.

Social burdens

Ford said the social issues resulting from an immigrant-heavy work force go deeper than just speaking the same language.

For its part, Steamboat gets a work force that fulfills the growing economy’s needs.

“Without the immigrants, the labor shortage would go from acute to severe,” Ford said.

However, Craig then bears the social weight that accompanies population growth, ranging from educational challenges to criminal activity.

“The two counties, we impact each other. We don’t live in a vacuum from each other,” Ford said. “The economy does its thing irrespective of political boundaries.”

And with the coming oil and gas expansion in Craig, Ford expects people won’t pay much attention to the line between Moffat and Routt, either.

“We have an open border. We haven’t put up toll booths yet,” Ford said. “We’re going to see the work force move to where they see opportunity.”

To reach Michelle Perry, call 824-7031 or e-mail mperry@craigdailypress.com