Lawn-Care Entrepreneur Faces A Changing Racial Landscape

Krissah Williams, Washington Post, Feb. 5, 2007

In the months that landscaper Nikita Floyd’s employees tended the 50-acre grounds at a large African American church, he received no complaint about their work.

So it surprised and stung him when a minister at the Prince George’s County congregation told him she was appalled that Floyd, who is black, sent a crew of a half-dozen Latin American immigrants to do the job. It was the mid-1990s, and Congress was considering immigration reform, but Floyd never imagined that his small company would be caught in the national debate.

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When immigrants compete for jobs, black workers are more vulnerable, say economists who point out that blacks are still disproportionately employed in low-skilled jobs. That vulnerability has been felt recently in the District’s working-class Brentwood community, where the presence of a large day-labor site in the Home Depot parking lot has alarmed some black residents, who say they worry that illegal immigrants are taking jobs from others.

Green Forever offers a window on the issue. In the early 1990s, Floyd had fewer than a dozen employees, all of them black. Today, 73 percent of the Washington area’s landscaping workers are immigrants, along with 51 percent of office cleaners and 43 percent of construction workers, according to a Pew Hispanic Center study last year.

Floyd’s 20 wintertime workers are all men from El Salvador, except for two black women who manage the office. In the summer, he employs twice as many men, all immigrants.

Floyd’s experience illustrates immigrants’ impact. Once just a guy with a lawnmower, he runs a business with annual sales of more than $2.5 million. He credits immigrant employees for his business’s growth and pays about $10 an hour, with no work and no pay in inclement weather. It’s grueling labor in the winter; a man can spend the day stabbing a spade into frozen dirt or be asked to shimmy up a tree with a chainsaw in one hand and no netting below.

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He hires from a network developed by early immigrants referring relatives and friends. As black workers cycled out, immigrants cycled in. The cycle churned until black workers were effectively locked out. Now, Floyd says, they rarely apply for jobs at Green Forever. A study by the Rand Corp., a think tank, shows that workforce replacement such as Floyd’s full shift from black to Latino is rare. But when the change occurs, it is not often reversed.

Vernon Briggs, a professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University who favors low immigration rates, said no group has “been harmed more by immigration than black Americans,” as immigrants often accept lower wages.

In the 1980s, the loss of thousands of jobs among the predominantly black, unionized janitorial workforce in Los Angeles to nonunion immigrants during a contract dispute marked a seminal point in the argument, said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a Los Angeles-based social issues commentator who favors cooperation between blacks and Latinos.

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When he started Green Forever in 1989, he recruited and hired black workers but was frustrated when they often left after a few months. That kind of turnover is typical of the low-skilled labor pool, and in those first few years Floyd paid his workers slightly more than minimum wage and did not yet offer health benefits.

Some of the guys would come in late, and Floyd hates to waste even a minute of daylight. He fired a man who nearly chopped off his arm on a log splitter after coming to work drunk. Others left for better-paying jobs. High school and college students hired in summer saw no future in landscaping.

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As owner, Floyd had a vision for Green Forever that his U.S.-born employees—with no stake in the company—did not share. “When I was mowing lawns, I saw myself in a truck checking on the men. When I was in the truck, I saw myself in the office,” Floyd said. “Now that I’m in the office, I see the company running itself.”

Floyd’s first jobs were to clean property strewn with used needles and dirty diapers. “It was nasty, nasty work,” he recalled, the kind President Bush has said U.S.-born workers won’t do as he pushes Congress to allow more immigrants in as temporary workers.

Immigrants present Floyd with Social Security numbers, but even corporations that use a government-hiring program employ illegal immigrants. Floyd acknowledges that he may have unknowingly done the same.

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In 1995, he hired Santos Medrano, who fled San Miguel, El Salvador, for the United States after being forced into the national army during a brutal civil war. Medrano entered the United States illegally in 1989 but applied for asylum and later received a green card. He had only two years of formal education, but on a maintenance job at a car dealership, a Cuban taught him English.

After Medrano’s cousin referred him to Floyd, Medrano was immediately made head foreman because he was the only fluent English speaker in the crew. He now has a company pickup truck, a work cellphone and pay of about $20 an hour.

An easygoing 36-year-old with wavy hair, Medrano spends his days driving to the sites where Green Forever employees are working or picking up plants and foliage, encountering other immigrants as he makes his rounds.

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Medrano has since become an essential part of Green Forever, Floyd says. On a recent Friday, he was stricken with flu, and Floyd worked a 14-hour day to pick up his duties, phoning Medrano at home to ask him to call another foreman and translate instructions.

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While Medrano managed the workers, Floyd taught himself more about the craft of landscaping and expanded the company. In Prince George’s, Floyd began to win bids in the tens of thousands of dollars for upscale landscaping in Woodmore, a gated community of half-million-dollar and up homes.

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