Gov. Bill Owens of Colorado signs measure last year withholding some state benefits from illegal immigrants.
Labor shortages may hit contractors harder in Colorado than in other states because of tough new laws cracking down on companies employing illegal immigrants. “The state of Colorado is now the toughest state in the United States for immigration law,” says Anne Allott, a Centennial, Colo.-based immigration attorney.
State legislators adopted the measures last year and they were signed by Gov. Bill Owens.
Some industry insiders think illegal workers could be a valuable resource, but the new laws shift considerable responsibility to employers. Essentially, employers must vouch for each newly hired employee with an affidavit and verify documents using online government databases.
Unlike federal laws that allow employers to accept documents on good faith, the new state law holds employers more accountable by putting the burden of proof on them. Those who knowingly fail to submit proper documents or submit falsified documents will be subject to fines up to $5,000 for the first offense and $25,000 for additional offenses.
That’s far different from what employers had become accustomed to under federal laws.
“Many of the federal laws on the books have not been enforced, either because of a lack of resources or because of a need for labor, but there is a budget to enforce this law, and it will be enforced. That will make it very, very difficult for construction companies to find the trained workers they need,” Allot says.
Another state law, in effect since last August, could make it even more difficult for some companies to bid on state contracts. The law prohibits a state agency or political division from entering into a public contract for services with a contractor who knowingly employs an unauthorized worker.
“This will only make it more difficult for some companies to compete and work on state or government contracts because they won’t be able to find workers,” says Matt Elam of Elam Construction Inc. in Grand Junction. His company routinely works on state projects such as repaving the south canyon stretch I-70 through Glenwood Springs last summer.
Complying with the new laws won’t be a cinch, says one immigration attorney.
Emily J. Curray says she was asked to provide construction employers with a straightforward and simple process to comply with the two new state laws. “Unfortunately, I cannot do that because of the confusion created by the laws and the difficulties raised by employers’ attempts to comply with them,” she wrote in a commentary published in Colorado Construction.
As his firm’s human resources director, Elam ensures that it “goes above and beyond” to comply with the laws. But he is still concerned that the new law will prevent his company, as well as other mid-sized firms, from bidding on lucrative state contracts.
“We wouldn’t want to risk not being able to deliver simply because we can¹t find the eligible employees to finish the job,” he says. “It would take substantial wage increases to find the local labor we need to compensate for the shortages. State and government agencies will certainly feel the effect. Prices will go up, and ultimately, the burden will fall on the government and then the taxpayers.”
This story and Emily Curray’s commentary originally appeared in the March issue of Colorado Construction.