Immigration bill could force hard decisions
WASHINGTON - The immigration bill that the U.S. Senate is to consider this week could force thousands of families employing nannies, house cleaners and gardeners who are in the country illegally to make a hard decision: Pay the workers on the books or let them go. (See related story, A3.)
But many of those workers will face hard decisions themselves: whether to pursue the legislation's offer of provisional immigrant status and demand to be paid on the books or face competition from others willing to work for cash.
Those decisions will play out in what labor economists call the murky world of household work, where authorities rarely enforce the law yet the demand for in-home caretakers is one of the fastest-growing areas of U.S. employment.
"It's a complicated question," said Jane Henrici, study director at the Institute for Women's Policy Research, a Washington think tank on domestic women's issues. "We want families to be able to afford care." Yet for the workers, "we hope it will elevate the opportunity to earn a better salary overall."
The nearly 900-page immigration bill would allow the 11.5 million people in the country illegally to apply to become registered provisional immigrants, giving them a Social Security card and a green light to work.
"The whole idea is that after you come out of the shadows and you get your provisional status, you don't want to be off the books," said Muzaffar Chishti, the New York director of the Migration Policy Institute.
Few provisions in the bill are likely to hit so close to home as the question of how it will affect household work.
Across the country, hundreds of thousands of families employ caretakers for children, the elderly or disabled, and workers to maintain houses and lawns, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Most are foreign-born and women. One survey found that a third were not in the country legally and that eight of 10 workers were paid off the books.
The Senate immigration bill includes measures that will ripple through household work.
More families would face being official employers under its narrower exemptions for casual or sporadic work, said Bill Stock, who is on the executive committee of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
"If you have a person who comes and cleans your house every week, that's no longer a casual employment," he said.
The bill also requires those who employ domestic help to use a system called E-Verify to check their hire's legal status, starting four years after the legislation becomes law.
The bill includes no new crackdown on household employers. Instead, it relies on the workers themselves to demand legal employment.
The bill gives provisional immigrants more incentive to find an on-the-books job by requiring they show continuous employment at above poverty-level pay when they apply for renewal of status in six years or legal residence in eight.
For many families with domestic workers, that would force a tough decision.
"You have to put them on the books, or you have to let them go," said Charlene Obernauer of the labor group Long Island Jobs with Justice.
But there are big incentives to avoid playing by the rules.
Families opting to put a worker on the books must pay added costs of Medicare and Social Security taxes, unemployment insurance and paperwork, said Rachel Jacobson, an attorney at Kaufman Dolowich & Voluck in Woodbury, N.Y.
"There is going to be a breaking point: When does the cost of an employee become too much?"
Jacobson said that might not become an issue unless the undocumented worker decides to apply for provisional status.
And that might not be an easy decision for the worker, either.
"For the person to come out of the shadows, they have to be taking a leap of faith," said Bob Sakaniwa, associate director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
They might find it hard to provide the right documents or come up with the required money. If they don't qualify, they face deportation, he said.
To get registered provisional immigrant status requires proof of being in the country before Dec. 31, 2011, payment of a fee, any taxes owed and a fine of $500, and passing a background check.
Even if the legislation becomes law, the continued flow of undocumented workers into the country will bring competition for those here who've gained provisional legal status, said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes the bill.
"I can still hire the guy who came across the border last night on my terms," he said.
In addition, most domestic workers are U.S. citizens or have legal status, and they still work off the books.
Susan Lob is New York organizer for an association of household employers called Hand in Hand, which advocates for work standards and fair pay for home workers. She seeks fair treatment of workers. But she said making families file the same paperwork and taxes as for a big business is unfair.
"Most of us are working people, too," Lob said. Her solution? "We want to amend the legislation to create exemptions from E-Verify for individual employers."
In 1986, Congress rejected such a bid after it was called the "Beverly Hills exemption." This month, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, filed a similar amendment, but withdrew it after it, too, was derided.
Lob said more and more families would face the burden. "It's growing because of all the baby boomers growing older," she said. "We look at this as a crisis in the need for home-care workers."
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