Who's on the roof: Immigrant labor shapes a summer industry

Roofer Steve Hackbarth
Twin Cities roofer Steve Hackbarth, on the roof of a home in Brooklyn Park, is one of a handful of roofing contractors in the area who won't hire Mexican crews.
MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich

Steve Hackbarth has run a roofing business in the Twin Cities for 15 years. He doesn't usually nail shingles himself now, but on this day he's climbing the ladder to a suburban roof in Brooklyn Park.

For different reasons, neither of his two crew members could be on the job today. "It's one of those cases where I end up doing some of the work myself," he says.

Unlike most of his competitors, Hackbarth refuses to tap a pool of workers that could keep him comfortably behind a desk -- and cost him perhaps 20 percent less than his current crew.

"A lot of the guys are hiring the illegal immigrants, and we don't do that, because we want to keep control of quality," Hackbarth says. "When I go out and seek a subcontractor, my main concern is that they're highly skilled. And number two, they have to be legal. If they didn't all have green cards, I wouldn't hire them."

As it turns out, this gives Hackbarth something of a niche in the local roofing market. He says he doesn't specifically advertise that his work crews are not Mexican. But it does become a selling point. "We only tend to bring it up if somebody asks," he says. "And usually what somebody asks is if they can communicate, if the people we hire speak English." Hackbarth's easy answer: "Of course."

Roofer Steve Hackbarth
Roofer Steve Hackbarth believes more young people would consider roofing if contractors paid higher wages. Others in the industry say its a job few Americans want to do, at almost any price.
MPR Photo/Jeff Horwich

But Hackbarth's choice does come at a price beyond just having to nail some shingles himself now and then. Because he pays his crews more, his bids often come in high. Hackbarth counters by touting superior quality and offering warranties two or even three times longer than the industry norm.

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State employment statistics hint at a significant shift in the residential roofing industry. Between the summer of 2000 and the summer of 2005, the number of people in the overall Minnesota residential construction industry rose 30 percent. At the same time, the number formally employed by residential roofing contractors in the state dropped by 34 percent -- and it's not because Minnesotans have stopped having work done on their roofs.

Roofing supply companies, for example, say business is great and there's no shortage of roofers, despite the statistical decline in roofing jobs. "It almost has seemed historically in the last 10 years there's a bottomless pit of migrant labor that's available," says Earl Ward, general manager at Roof Depot in Minneapolis.

Ward says of the 300 contractors he supplies, maybe five operate like Steve Hackbarth. Nowadays it's the informal network of migrant roofing crews that makes the industry go.

"Your typical contractor would sell a job and then call up 'Pedro's Roofing,' or whatever, and get ahold of minority labor crews, predominantly Mexicans," Ward says. "And for a price per square [foot] they would just do the job for him. And with that in mind he doesn't have employees, he doesn't have to worry about workers' compensation issues or any of those. He just pays a guy to do it for him."

Ward and others in the Minnesota residential roofing industry peg the labor shift at a very specific point: the summer of 1998. When massive hail storms hit the upper Midwest, regional roofing companies and crews couldn't meet the demand. So-called "storm chaser" roofing companies came to town and brought their Mexican crews with them; regional companies also needed the extra labor.

(They) helped create the biggest boom in homebuilding in modern American history. Now that boom would not have taken place without (workers) whose true documentation is not verifiable.

"After 1998, it seemed that within about a two-year period it turned 180 (degrees) from all Americans doing the roofing to all Mexicans. It happened that quick," Ward says, adding that Mexican crews "are much more efficient, they're easier to find, and in a lot of respects they do a better job."

The National Roofing Contractors Association is eager to tout the quality of the Mexican workers and the jobs they do on American roofs. "Key sectors of the industry have been able to populate their workforces with hard-working, industrious individuals who who need this work," says Craig Brightup, the trade group's vice president of government relations. These workers, he says, "have, for example, helped create the biggest boom in homebuilding in modern American history. Now that boom would not have taken place without the kinds of workers we're talking about now...those whose true documentation is not verifiable."

On the roof in Brooklyn Park, roofer Steve Hackbarth takes issue with the notion that quality has not suffered. Hackbarth says a lot of his business now involves fixing mistakes by inexperienced Mexican crews. "Just slapped (the shingles) on, and they did it wrong -- nailed them too high and then eventually the shingles started blowing off, and the only answer to it was to re-do the whole roof," he says. "We're going to see a lot of roofs having to be redone because people did them wrong."

Not so, says Pat Marcy, the sales manager at St. Paul roofing supply dealer United Product Corporation, who maintains the immigrant crews "saved the industry, plain and simple." He praises today's mostly Mexican crews for fewer problems with drinking and drugs, and a willingness to work long, hot days at what he calls the toughest job in any industry.

And while it has become a cliche in the current immigration debate, Marcy says these are truly jobs Americans don't want. He recalls a recent roofing industry survey of high school seniors, asking what jobs they were considering. "There were 250 choices for an occupation," Marcy says. "Roofing came in 249th. The only one below it was coal mining. So you have to actually go below ground before you get a worse job than roofing."

Part of the problem could be the pay. Between 2000 and 2005 wages in residential roofing rose at half the rate of overall wages in the Minnesota residential construction industry. Some roofers like Steve Hackbarth say skilled young people could be coaxed back into the trade if contractors paid higher wages like he does -- and charged higher prices to homeowners.

Marcy, on the other hand, is among those who thinks it's too late. And he says the industry was struggling to find good workers even before Mexican roofing crews entered the upper Midwest. "Without the Hispanic force, the Mexican labor, there really is no labor force here. They're it. We'd be right back to where we were in the mid-90s, where we couldn't get jobs done, and we couldn't get it done properly."

Not surprisingly, the roofing industry nationally has been an active voice in the current policy debate over immigration. Craig Brightup of the National Roofing Contractors Association calls the current immigration system "completely dysfunctional." He says the industry operates in a don't-ask-don't-tell "pantomime" where workers must conceal their immigration status and roofers don't ask about it.

But Brightup says roofers were even more alarmed at proposals in Congress to close off the border and jail immigrants who are here illegally. Brightup says the country needs an immigration policy that recognizes the economic importance of immigrant labor.

"It really is a formula that has to involve a functional, legitimate, easy-to-use guest worker program as well as a component that recognizes that there are anywhere from 11 million to 13 million undocumented aliens in this country today, the vast majority of which are working hard (and) do not have any kind of problems with the law," Brightup says. "Employers who need workers would undoubtedly help sponsor those workers to make sure everything is on the up and up."

Until Congress takes action -- and probably even then -- those with the ultimate ability to shape the industry are consumers considering the roofs over their heads. A few will pay a premium for the shrinking number of roofers like Steve Hackbarth who avoid immigrant labor. But, as in most areas of economic life, the path of the overall industry will tend to follow the lowest bid.