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August 22, 2011

Why Won’t Americans Take These Jobs?

We've heard the argument a million times:

Farmers: "Americans just won't take these jobs."

Proponents of stricter immigration enforcement: "It's unconscionable to allow these foreigners to take American jobs at a time of high unemployment."

What we don't hear is the question: "how come with such high unemployment Americans aren't taking these jobs?" The answer, in some cases, is that we're paying them not to. Paying people who can work but won't depletes unemployment funds for those who are not voluntarily jobless and forces the cost of unemployment insurance relentlessly upward. Paying welfare to people who choose not to work robs the benefits needed by those who can't work or whose work income can't completely support their families.

Here in Vermont dairy farmers are dependent on migrant workers and are pretty open that most of these are "undocumented" (polite word for illegal). The farmers are convinced and convincing that they can't hire Americans for these jobs even though they pay above minimum wage and the jobs meet all legal employment standards for health and safety. The "undocumented" young men (it's almost all young men) who risk their lives to cross the American border, work hard, and send money back to families at home are admirable IMHO. They are more productive than the citizens who "won't" take these jobs. But why are we paying unemployment insurance and/or welfare or providing food stamps to able-bodied people who aren't tied down by child care but "won't" take these jobs?

There was a brouhaha over whether Vermont's not-very-well-defined future single payer health insurance system will pay benefits to illegal workers. Illegal workers (these, anyway) pay taxes; shouldn't the question be "what work should an able-bodied person be required to do in order to be covered by any form of public assistance?"

There was a recent story in The New York Times about farmer opposition to a bill which would require them to e-verify the citizenship of their workers:

""People just don't want to do farm work," Mr. Wenger [president of the California Farm Bureau] said. "They don't want to pick berries. They don't want to pick lettuce. And the pay is just as good as working at the hamburger shop or making up hotel rooms, but they just don't want to do the work."

"Mike Carlton, director of labor relations for the Florida Fruit and Vegetables Association, agreed. He said his group monitored hiring by citrus growers, who are required to offer jobs to Americans before they can turn to the H-2A program for temporary foreign laborers.

"In one sample, Mr. Carlton said, 344 Americans came forward to fill 1,800 pickers' jobs; only eight were still working at the end of the two-month season."

The story doesn't say whether those who turn down or quit picker's jobs are still eligible for unemployment insurance or what they then live on. Maybe they all got "better" jobs but I doubt it. The story doesn't say whether the documentation for H-2A proving that Americans won't take these jobs is turned over to unemployment offices to check against jobless claims in their area.

It feels mean-spirited to write this at a time when so many Americans are involuntarily unemployed and doing their best to find work. It is certainly true that banks got bailed out that shouldn't have and that hedge-fund managers should pay their fair share of taxes (General Electric, too). It is also true that there are unscrupulous employers who pay less than minimum wage to illegal workers or who subject them to unsafe working conditions. There's no excuse for any of that. But it's perverse to concentrate on sending hard-workers away while paying some Americans not to work. The unemployment rate will go down – not all the way down but down some –when we deny public assistance and "extended" unemployment benefits to those who "won't" take available jobs.

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