Food - Georgia’s immigration law and the restaurant industry

How will HB87 impact the state’s eateries?

There’s a lot of talk in Georgia about how the controversial new immigration law, HB 87, is affecting the state’s economy. Some people worry that, as happened in Arizona, our tourism industry will suffer. The agriculture industry has already encountered significant problems, with many of the migrant workers relied upon for harvesting produce already avoiding the state altogether. Since the restaurant industry also relies heavily on immigrant labor, I wondered how the new law, as well as the perception of that law, would impact Georgia’s restaurant industry.

I contacted a number of people in the industry to find out what they thought the effects would be. Unsurprisingly, people were reluctant to talk. Chefs and restaurateurs worried about bringing too much attention to themselves and their cooks. I contacted representatives from the big restaurant groups in town and got no responses. Others were willing to talk, but not on the record. As a result, many of the quotes that follow are anonymous.

“Everyone’s scared. We don’t want to leave our families here. Everyone’s talking about it. We don’t know what the law means, we just feel scared. Everyone in the kitchens here, they’re all Mexican. What’s going to happen if we all have to leave? I don’t know.”

“Frank,” a Mexican cook who works in an Atlanta restaurant

“These guys have nowhere to go. We have one cook who is just the best guy, he works so hard. He pays his taxes. I sent him to the Latin American Association to get advice on how to get papers, and they told him to go to immigration. You think he’s going to go there? To the very people who are looking to deport him?”

“Jenny,” Atlanta restaurant owner

“Georgia has roughly 15,000 restaurants with 385,000 employees. The national average for restaurant employee turnover is 107 percent. So people are going to be using the E-Verify system the federal government’s online system employers must use under the new law to check the legal status of employees basically every week. It adds another human resource and legal obligation to restaurants. Instead of ensuring food safety and food quality and spending time with customers, restaurant owners will be spending time doing administrative functions that may work or may not work. The E-Verify system can’t be used for prescreening employees. Business owners have to hire the employee first before they can put his or her name into E-Verify. If E-Verify finds ‘no match’ to the name, it can take a few weeks to sort out what the legal status of the employee is, and during that time, the employer must keep the person employed.”

Karen Bremer, executive director for the Georgia Restaurant Association

“E-Verify has been shown to have millions of errors which disproportionately flag foreign-born U.S. citizens. Due to database errors, legal foreign-born workers (including those who have become U.S. citizens) are 20 times more likely than native-born U.S. citizens to be incorrectly identified as not authorized for employment. This will lead to delays in employment and may lead to selective hiring practices where employers avoid any foreign-looking applicant just so they can minimize the potential costs and work disruptions.”

Helen Kim Ho, executive director for the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center of Georgia

“I recently put out an ad for a cook, and I got about 50 applications. I threw out all the ones that looked to be Mexican because we knew this law was coming down and we didn’t want to deal with it. I don’t know if those folks are legal or not, but I just didn’t want to even have to think about it.

‘I don’t know what’s going to happen to the industry. Guys like Hugh Acheson, who are at such a high level that people want to come work for him for free, those guys will be fine. But the rest of us, us blue collar chefs? I don’t know how our places are going to survive.”

“Kevin,” Atlanta chef

“The simple fact of the matter is it’s not like I’ve got a bunch of people coming in here beating down the door to wash dishes. These people aren’t filling jobs that traditional ‘Americans’ are looking to fill. Look, if you’re coming to work in America and had the choice to go somewhere else that didn’t have a Draconian law I think you’d probably do it. Do I think there’s going to be a labor shortage right now? I’m not so sure of that.

‘I really, really bristle at the fact that people say as business owners we’re paying people less or substandard wages to cheat to get buy. That’s my biggest issue. My highest paid employee happens to be a Mexican guy. We don’t pay anyone in our kitchen minimum wage. There’s no one in my operation that gets paid minimum wage, including the dishwashers.”

“Dave,” Atlanta chef and business owner

“There’s no doubt these guys drive down the wages in this industry. I’ve known Mexican guys who started three years ago making minimum wage, and they’re still making minimum wage. If you don’t think that drives down wages for the rest of us, you’re crazy.”

“Chris,” an Atlanta line cook

“When I made my opinion public, I thought it was very ironic and almost humorous how many people reacted with a sense of: ‘We had no idea you employed illegal immigrants. We’ll never set foot back into your establishment.’ Some folks truly resonate a ridiculous sense of denial; they just can’t see that this situation will impact them. I think it’s quite obvious that until we stop treating this as black and white issue, there will be no resolution, not a practical one, anyway. We as a society enabled the situation and obviously benefited from it as it evolved. Now we’re going to take an atomic bomb approach to fixing it? I guess in years to come, career day will broaden its horizon and include the likes of dishwashers, prep-cooks and busboys?”

Ron Eyester, Atlanta chef and CL columnist

Additional reporting by Katie Valentine.

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