Episode 15 From Hubbard, Wisconsin- “The Gonzales’ Dilemma”

The summer has been a busy one for Jose Gonzales. Total employment at Gonzales Construction has surged from 38 to 55 people, largely due to a contract to build a new apartment complex west of Hubbard. Jose came up the hard way (Episode 2, 8/7/05), crossing the US border illegally from Mexico. He and his wife Angela are now US citizens and have built a solid life in Hubbard. The Caucasian folks who hang out at the Hubbard country club have no idea that this once “illegal alien” has a net worth that exceeds that of most of them. After all, Jose never had time to learn how to play golf. He drives around in old cars and his home, while well maintained, is reasonably modest. Probably the only guy at the country club who knows Jose’s financial status is his banker, and Jose has long ago told him to keep his mouth shut.

Ironically, Jose could hire even more workers, if he could find them. “What happened to the kids who want to work hard with their hands and learn how to do construction?” he wonders. When Jose was eighteen he started pushing a wheelbarrow and doing landscaping, eventually learning how to do carpentry and more advanced construction. He worked sixteen-hour days to the point of utter exhaustion, often for weeks at a time. It kept food on the table and had a few moments each evening with his self-described “knock-out gorgeous” wife, Angela. There wasn’t much time for leisure, but Jose learned quickly. If he observed someone doing a new task in the construction process, he never forgot the methodology. He learned the tricks of the trade. Jose’s mind is now a virtual encyclopedia of construction knowledge, all gained from “learning by doing.”

Now when he hires new kids, some of them don’t even stick around for lunch on the first day. The work is hard, but Jose starts them at $12 an hour, with a wage of $15 per hour if they make it 90 days. Jose expects them to be moving all the time, with no wasted effort. They are costing him time, and time is money. However, Jose is patient with them, if they show promise. If they make a costly mistake, he seldom scolds them. Instead, he shows them what they did wrong, how to correct it, and admonishes them, “Just don’t do that again.” Jose hired 20 entry-level workers this summer. As of June 4th, only five of them are still working for him, and two of those are “on the edge.” “No one wants to work anymore,” says Jose.

The labor shortage is critical. Jose’s projects would be behind schedule if his existing workers didn’t work overtime, but he knows that his loyal employees can work only so many weekends before they will quit. There is a young guy, Renaldo, east of town, that runs a roofing company with a virtual 100% Hispanic labor force. Jose has hired Renaldo for a few small jobs and he’s noticed how hard those guys work. Renaldo has hinted that he can get more of these workers from Mexico if Jose wants to hire them. In fact, a couple of Renaldo’s men have applied to work for Jose, but they don’t have the proper paperwork. This pains Jose, because those guys remind him of a young man named Jose Gonzales, many years ago. They work hard, but more important, they want to learn.

Last night Jose and Angela had a quiet dinner on the patio. They talked about the early years when they had nothing but dreams. They didn’t want to imagine what their lives would have been like if they had stayed in Mexico. They thought about the bright futures their children have, now that they are attending college and working in the family business. Now they find their own business threatened, not because they can’t find cheap labor, but because they can’t find anybody that wants to work hard, even at a good wage. They look at the illegal aliens that have recently applied for work at Gonzales Construction and see in their faces the desire for the American dream. “All they want is an opportunity,” says Jose to Angela.

They struggle with their dilemma. They are law abiding American citizens who run a private business and pay boatloads of taxes. Their employees pay taxes. They are loyal to the United States and love this country very much. They have a company to run and customers to please, but they can’t find legal workers to do the job. Right on their doorstep are young men who will do the work, at a decent wage, without shirking or complaining. They are not robots; they are human beings who seek a better life. Angela and Jose sit for hours on the patio, debating their options. Finally the decision is made.

“I’ll call Renaldo tomorrow morning,” says Jose.

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