Immigration Protests Hit Small Businesses

Many small businesses felt the effects of Monday’s “Day Without Immigrants” protest, which led hundreds of thousands of students and workers to stage walkouts across the nation.

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Organizers of the massive event, stretching from New York to Los Angeles, said the purpose was to show the importance of immigrants to the nation’s economy, by having supporters stay home from work and school, and refrain from making purchases.

Like several large corporations that were forced to close facilities because of worker shortages, including Tyson Foods (TSN) and Cargill, some small businesses were also forced to shut down.
Some smaller firms, however, chose to take a proactive approach to the issue — adjusting employee schedules or facilitating petitions and letter-writing campaigns.

Scarff Nursery in New Carlisle, Ohio, for example, arranged a meeting with Rep. Dave Hobson (R-Ohio), instead of having its 48 Hispanic workers take the day off. “Almost 50 percent of our workforce is Hispanic, and it would affect us in a huge way,” owner Peter Scarff said.

Scarff’s landscape manager first suggested the meeting, and it proved effective — most of the company’s staff ultimately showed up for work. “I’ve fought for this cause, and I will continue to fight for it,” Scarff said, noting that his difficulty in finding enough employees has led him to support more legal channels for immigrant workers. “We were trying to turn a negative, that would be the lost production, into a positive somehow.”

While Scarff’s managed to keep his business productive for the day, Craig Regelbrugge of the American Nursery and Landscape Association, based in Washington, said member companies reported absentee rates ranging from under 10 percent to as high as 90 percent during the protests.

Although the U.S. Chamber of Commerce did not participate in the event, the group’s vice president for labor and immigration, Randall Johnson, said that the massive gatherings “serve to demonstrate to decision-makers that they can’t ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room anymore.”

Wade Newton of the Associated Builders and Contractors Federation, based in Arlington, Va., said the entire construction industry is facing a worker shortage. “There are positions out there that we need to have filled to do our jobs,” Newton said. “We need to have a guest-worker program that allows for an immigrant workforce.”

Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington-based advocacy group, said that Monday’s rallies helped underscore that the small number of visas available for people to come work in the service sector don’t begin to approach the need. “We’ve got 500,000 people coming to the U.S. illegally and they are coming to work.” Kelley said, “They aren’t coming to get their nails done. They are coming to do people’s nails.”

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