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Immigration unites Obama foes and fans


Beth Ewen

Jeff Salter, CEO of Caring Senior Service, is often at odds with the Obama administration. Most recently he lobbied hard against changes in how people who provide care in patients’ homes are compensated—they are no longer exempt from overtime and minimum-wage rules, as of January 2015.

But when it comes to President Obama’s executive order in November, offering temporary legal status to millions of illegal immigrants as well as a reprieve from deportation, Salter is on board.

“I definitely feel it’s a long-term issue that needs addressing,” he says. “It’s frustrating because the parties can’t work together. It’s passed on to the next group of legislators.”

Salter’s wife is from Scotland, and she has to get her work visa renewed every 10 years. “As a nurse she was easily admitted. The fact we don’t have a way for non-skilled workers to enter is a shame,” he says.

Salter’s industry, home healthcare, is particularly hard hit by a worker shortage, which is the main reason this issue is causing him to switch sides. Caring Senior Service employed more than 1,500 caregivers who are hourly workers, but because of the overtime rule change that number will rise.

“Our locations have to hire as much as a third more staff to deal with the rule change. When you’re talking about 1,500 employees now, we might need an additional 500 employees in the first quarter of 2015,” he says.

Caring Senior Service is in 22 states, including all the border states with Mexico, where changing immigration rules will have the biggest impact. But Colorado, Alabama, North Carolina, Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey and others would be helped if more people could work.

“Some people feel immigration is a border states issue, but that’s just not the case. There are people in all pockets in the United States who couldn’t get good, legitimate work.”

And although he doesn’t know how many more workers would become available under the executive order—“we haven’t put exact numbers to it, because it’s an elusive number,” he says—“any help would be a help. Any increase in the pool of available workers would be a boost for us in many of our markets.”

Struggling to hire

Andrew Bleiman, an attorney with Marks & Klein in Chicago, says he’s hearing universal support for immigration reform, if not for the executive action itself. “I think that everyone, franchisors and franchisees alike, agree that reform is needed,” he says, adding “true reform needs to be thorough” and the latest order doesn’t go far enough.

“We have seen clients that really have struggled over the past 18 to 24 months to find employees,” he says. “So they’re very hopeful and optimistic that immigration reform take place.”

In addition to fast-food restaurants, home healthcare and hotels are two other industries looking hard for employees. “Franchisors and franchisees are aligned on this issue, from the standpoint that franchisors recognize that these types of workers are essential to their franchisees’ business,” he says.

Opposition to the order, of course, has been fierce in Congress, with the House passing legislation in January to nullify Obama’s immigration policies and tie the issue to a bill funding the Department of Homeland Security. Opponents want to shoot down the plan to give safe harbor to 4 million illegal immigrants who have children who are citizens.

They also want to end a program that offers safe harbor to young people brought to the U.S. illegally as children, making some 600,000 people in the program subject to deportation. At press time, a federal judge blocked the order.

But beyond the beltway, support is common. Anthony Russo, CEO of Russo’s Restaurants, has 23 restaurants in Houston, Dallas and Austin, Texas, and a total of 36 franchise stores. “We’re for the reform,” he says. “Most of these people are great people; they want to work.” His system hasn’t had problems with hiring undocumented workers, but the prospect makes him and his franchisees uneasy.

“We don’t know 100 percent if they’re legal. Today they walk in with Social Security numbers, we do the I-9s, we do the W-2s, but still we don’t know if they’re legitimate workers or not,” he says. “I don’t think the business owners should be penalized in the first place,” if a worker turns out to be undocumented. “It’s not right” when in his view it’s the politicians falling down on the job. Russo adds the border has to be secured, or the illegal immigration problem will be the same in five years as it is today.

“I say more reform, absolutely” is needed, and a pathway to citizenship for those already here is a must. “The United States was built on immigrants.”

‘Let them pay taxes’

Bill Redfern, CEO of A Buyer’s Choice Home Inspections, is another fan of immigration reform that will allow more people in, mostly because he’s had success with franchisees. “We’ve had very good success with immigrants as buyers because the work ethic is exceptional. You get the mentality that they refuse to lose,” he says.

One franchisee, a Bosnian immigrant, had a wife and two kids and didn’t speak English. “I lost sleep over it one night, and I thought the English skills are weak, but he seemed to have a big heart and he was working three jobs,” Redfern says. “I knew he was the type of person who would work. Within two and a half years, he bought three territories from us, and he did $300,000 a year as a home inspector.”

More than 25 percent of his system’s franchisees are immigrants, he says. “I am all for immigration reform that includes a pathway for unauthorized people to gain legal status,” he says, and also safeguards an employer’s liability if a person is not documented.

He favors a path to citizenship for people who are already here illegally. “They’re here, and we’re not gaining any benefit. We’re not collecting taxes, we’re not paying FICA,” he says. “Roll them into the system. You know they’re going to work hard.

“Let them work. Let them pay taxes. Let them create employment.”

Beth Ewen is managing editor of Franchise Times. Send interesting legal and public policy cases to bewen@franchisetimes.com.


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