A Job Americans Won’t Do, Even at $34 an Hour

Times Staff Writer

Cyndi Smallwood is looking for a few strong men for her landscaping company. Guys with no fear of a hot sun, who can shovel dirt all day long. She’ll pay as much as $34 an hour.

She can’t find them.

Maybe potential employees don’t know about her tiny Riverside firm. Maybe the problem is Southern California’s solid economy and low unemployment rate. Or maybe manual labor is something that many Americans couldn’t dream of doing.

“I’m baffled why more people do not apply,” Smallwood says.


President Bush is not. In his speech to the nation Monday night, he referred to “jobs Americans are not doing,” echoing a point he has been making for years. To fill these spurned jobs and keep the economy humming, Bush says, the U.S. needs a guest worker program.

Otherwise, the logic goes, fruit will rot in the fields, offices will overflow with trash and lawns and parks will revert to desert.

Countering that view, opponents of a guest worker program say that Americans would find the jobs more enticing if there wasn’t foreign competition to swell the labor pool and push wages down.

Smallwood is ambivalent on immigration reform, saying demands for immediate citizenship by those who entered the country illegally are offensive. But without a guest worker program, she says, her company probably will not survive.

“To get workers, you have to steal them from other companies,” the 54-year-old entrepreneur says.

Even that has been unproductive recently. She’d ideally like to add eight employees by the end of the year to her current staff of 12.

The lawn and landscape business in California is heavily Latino, with an abundance of illegal immigrants. In a study of Los Angeles County’s “off-the-books” labor force, the Economic Roundtable, a nonprofit research organization, estimated that a quarter of the landscape workers were undocumented. That leaves the companies vulnerable to crackdowns, which has them agitating for guest workers.

At Smallwood’s company, Diversified Landscape Management, there’s one white employee, an engineer. The other employees are Latino and, as far as Smallwood can tell, all in the country legally. Her employees need driver’s licenses and the ability to move through freeway checkpoints near the border, which tend to eliminate any with fake papers.


Thirty years ago, those in the landscape industry say, white crews were common. Now, says Jim Newtson, a San Diego contractor, “if you see a white guy, you do a double-take, like when you saw an interracial couple back in the 1960s.”

Managers in the business explain it as a cultural shift, saying that native-born, middle-class Americans of all races and ethnic backgrounds tend to look down on manual labor. That leaves immigrants to do the work.

“The people I grew up with 40 years ago expected to work hard physically,” says Bob Wade of Wade Landscape in Laguna Beach.

“This is a pretty pampered little town. The kids don’t expect to work hard,” Wade says. “A lot don’t expect to work at all. They just float.”


Wade fired one employee three times, the last time for going to look at girls on the beach instead of spraying weeds. The employee -- his son -- now works in the restaurant industry.

Larger economic forces come into play too. Orange County, for example, consistently has the lowest jobless rate in the state. Although that could be a draw for laborers in states with high unemployment, the high housing prices in the county act as a brake on that sort of migration.

Smallwood grew up doing manual labor. The daughter of a sharecropper in Mississippi, she had to pick her share of cotton from age 6. “I wouldn’t do that again for any price,” she says.

When she moved to California, she worked as a property manager, then developed a lawn-care business, which she sold in 1998. The death of her only child, Michael, from a drug overdose two years later drew her outside to her own garden. “I watered, fertilized, planted and pruned, determined that nothing else was going to die on me,” she says.


That experience led to the creation of Diversified Landscape, which specializes in public works projects. Diversified Landscape installs plants on medians on city streets, creates rock formations called “blankets” for Caltrans on freeway off-ramps and builds irrigation systems on high school sports fields.

As a government contractor, Diversified Landscape is required to pay prevailing wages as calculated by the state Department of Industrial Relations. Experienced laborers earn $34.24 an hour; untrained “tenders” make $14.17. Each work site is required to have an equal number of laborers and tenders.

Landscapers such as Bob Wade, who work for private clients, pay much less -- about $8.50 an hour to start. But Smallwood’s higher wages don’t seem to be helping her very much.

“Last July I ran an ad in the Riverside Press-Enterprise,” she says. “I got only two responses.” She hired one of them, who left after a few months for a job closer to his home.


Other landscapers also report a labor shortage.

“Our difficulty in hiring is horrible,” says Cathy Gurney of Sierra Landscape & Maintenance in Chico, north of Sacramento. “We’ve been advertising for a supervisor, which would pay $15 to $25 an hour with full benefits. No one qualified is applying.”

Some economists say such accounts don’t mean that Americans won’t do some jobs, but that employers such as Gurney simply aren’t paying enough.

“Every time someone says illegal immigrants take jobs from Americans or do jobs Americans don’t want, I want to scream,” UCLA economist Christopher Thornberg says.


This argument makes Smallwood want to scream herself. On a recent job that went into overtime, a Diversified Landscape foreman, Vincente Sanchez, was making $52.34 an hour.

“How high can you go?” she says.

Outside her office one recent afternoon she encounters Bennie Gray, who says he earns about $60,000 a year detailing cars -- a different kind of work, but also done in the hot sun. Gray, a thickly muscled African American, acknowledges that on an hourly basis, he might make more working for Smallwood, but can’t imagine it.

“I’m not going to lie,” says Gray, 48. “I don’t want to work that hard. My ancestors had to work in the fields. My mom still talks about the splinters and sores.”


Smallwood’s employees have their own theories about the shortage of workers.

“They don’t know what the wages are, and they’re scared to get their hands dirty,” says Marco Camberos. He’s running one side of a two-person auger that will be used to dig about 7,000 one-foot holes along a mile of median in Laguna Nigel. The team is planting evergreen shrubs.

Camberos is making $18 an hour as a trainee. At 26, he has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from UC Riverside and plans to open his own landscaping business. “This is the means to an end,” he says.

Telling Americans there are jobs they won’t do isn’t necessarily a way to endear yourself to them. Addressing a group of union leaders in Washington last month, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the members of his audience wouldn’t pick lettuce even for $50 an hour.


When some in the crowd angrily dissented, McCain demurred: “You can’t do it, my friends.” Three dozen demonstrators later showed up at the senator’s Phoenix office, bearing lettuce-picker applications as well as heads of lettuce.

McCain may be allied with Bush on this point, but many other Republicans are not. Immigration is driving a wedge between the GOP and its longtime constituency in the business world. Smallwood has two signed photos of Bush on the wall of her office, one of them thanking her for contributing to the Republican National Committee.

Will she be making another contribution to the Republicans anytime soon?

“Not hardly.”


That’s due in large measure to her anger at her congressman, Rep. Gary G. Miller (R-Diamond Bar), who does not favor a guest worker program.

In January, Smallwood had a contentious meeting with Miller at his district office in Brea. She said Miller twice challenged her assertion that she couldn’t find workers for $34 an hour, saying his son would work for that wage and offering to send him over.

Smallwood said she took the deal, but that his son never showed up. Miller declined to be interviewed.

Last week Smallwood wrote a flier that says she would pay $34 with experience and $14 without. The notice cautions that no application would be accepted “without verification of proper identification that allows you, by law, to work in the USA.”


The flier is up in more than a dozen landscaping supply stores. So far, Smallwood says, there have been no calls.