Job security but no advancement from bottom rung

NEW YORK: Sleep is a rare commodity for Juan Cortez. Between nights spent clearing tables at a Manhattan nightclub and days running food to customers in a Bronx restaurant, the 42-year-old Peruvian immigrant worries more about finding time for shuteye than job security.

More than 100 miles to the north in the Hudson Valley, Omar Guzman also isn't concerned about staying employed. The 20-year-old migrant farm worker spends his summer days picking peas and cherries, and by fall will be harvesting acres of apples.

Even with the unemployment rate above 9 percent, the nation's native-born jobless are looking at higher rungs of the labor market for their next career move. For immigrants like Cortez and Guzman, it means a degree of job security — but also more competition if they want to advance into jobs above bussers and barbacks, runners, dishwashers and crop hands.

The phenomenon of Americans shunning farm jobs is nothing new — the influx of Mexicans and other foreign-born workers to fill vacancies has fueled a long, sometimes contentious immigration debate. Those labor dynamics seem largely unchanged this year.

In one sign, farmers are still steadily applying for visas under the federal program designed to provide temporary farm workers where there are expected domestic labor shortages. Federal immigration officials received 5,574 so-called H-2A petitions from Oct. 1 through mid-June. The numbers could exceed the previous fiscal year if applications continue at the same pace.

"Even as rural unemployment increases, U.S. workers regard farm work as beneath them," said Jordan Wells, coordinator of the Justice for Farmworkers Campaign in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "Why do people work at McDonald's and not the farm? There's something about farm work that has been stigmatized."

Farmers like the Ron Samascott in Kinderhook, N.Y., typically advertise available jobs before bringing in workers from other countries.

"I don't think we had any responses," Samascott said.

Crop workers at Samascott's farm can earn more than $2 an hour above the New York state minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

The American Farm Bureau estimates there are 11 million Americans in jobs that pay less than farm work. In a country where roughly eight out of 10 people live in urban areas, farm work is not an option for many of those low-wage workers. But the arduous work performed by more than a million people nationwide is unattractive to many job seekers.

Steve Rivera of Washingtonville, N.Y., a student at the State University of New York at Albany, has held jobs at the Gap and McDonald's, worked construction and on a golf course, but he never really considered working at a farm.

"I work at the garden center at Wal-Mart," said Rivera. "I'd probably get dirtier farming, so I just would not consider it."

It's a theme that runs throughout New York City's massive restaurant trade as well.

At Cafe du Soleil in upper Manhattan, managing partner Cyril Tregoat hasn't seen native-born Americans applying to work as busboys.

"They don't want those. Nobody asked me to work as a busboy," he said. "They want the waiter job or the bartender job."

That doesn't surprise Rob Paral, a research fellow at the American Immigration Law Foundation who is researching unemployment trends. Excluding teenagers, immigrants make up more of the work force in the food services sector than native-born Americans, he said.

For most native-born workers, these jobs are "a stepping stone, maybe it's your first employment, something you do while you're going to school," he said. "Society doesn't expect us to be working in these jobs in our 30s and 40s."

Some of it is due to the perception of status, he said. "You don't want to be pushed to the point where you're perceived as being desperate and doing these lower-status, lower-prestige jobs."

Ousman Trawally, a 36-year-old Gambian native, smiles at the idea of native-born Americans working his job of running food to restaurant diners.

"I've been doing this almost eight years," he said. "I work with Americans. They never complete six months."

While the field is seemingly wide open for immigrants willing to work those low-wage jobs, the competition heats up when it comes to moving up — or trying to do so.

"It has slowed down the upward mobility of immigrants and their families and children," Miguel Carranza, professor of Sociology and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "If it continues for a while then it will have long-term effects" on immigrants' ability to provide better lives to future generations by paying for things like higher education or being able to afford to live in nicer neighborhoods.

Mohammad Abdul Muktadir, who works as a runner, says he has more experience than the native-born waiters he now assists. They make more money than he does and have the job he wants.

"They've never been waiters before," the 48-year-old Bangladesh immigrant said.

Like restaurant workers in New York City, farm migrants around the country are having a harder time "stepping up" to better jobs as truck drivers, certified nursing assistants, child care workers and data entry workers. Now more native-born workers are scrambling for those jobs in the tough economy, said David Strauss, executive director of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs.

Jim Bittner, manager of Singer Farms near the Lake Ontario shore north of Buffalo, has witnessed the effects — the return of migrant workers who had left to pursue better-paying jobs.

"We're seeing people come back that we haven't seen in a few years because they had drifted off to the Carolinas and Florida, where they worked construction," he said. "Those jobs no longer are there."