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Worker Shortage Blamed on Uncertainty, Fear of Law : Amnesty Woes Snag L.A. Garment Trade

June 14, 1987|NANCY YOSHIHARA | Times Staff Writer

The 250 sewing machines that normally are humming at the Cal-Art Sportswear factory in downtown Los Angeles are down to 160 because owner Rito Gutierrez has not been able to keep enough of his operators since the new immigration law went into effect. To make matters worse, he is having trouble recruiting replacements.

"I put an ad in the paper for three weeks. I never got a phone call," Gutierrez said. Five or six people came in looking for work, he added, but they did not have the proper papers to qualify for employment under the law.

"Right now, I'm turning down a lot of work because I can't get operators," Gutierrez said, sighing.

Confusion, fear and misinformation among immigrants seeking amnesty under the landmark immigration law passed last year are creating severe worker shortages for garment makers in Los Angeles, which is second only to New York as an apparel employment center. Many workers are quitting their jobs, and in some cases fleeing the United States, because of concern about their legal status, according to community leaders.

The immigration law, which grants amnesty to aliens who can prove continuous U.S. residency since before Jan. 1, 1982, and imposes sanctions on employers who knowingly hire illegals, was expected to create some labor shortages in local industries, ranging from retailing to agriculture, that depend on low-wage immigrant workers.

But the scale and the quickness of the shortages so soon after the law started being phased in on May 5 have alarmed employers. The problems come even before the employer sanctions portion of the law is being fully enforced, although businesses are now required to check the legal status of new employees.

"I'm hearing complaints mainly in (apparel) manufacturing. They are feeling the crunch," says Antonio H. Rodriguez, an attorney with the East Los Angeles Immigration Project. "Nobody expected it to happen this soon."

Some executives in the hotel and fast-food industries, which heavily employ Latinos, said they have not yet felt the same impact. One reason, according to hotel managers, is that they attempt to hire only legal residents.

"I don't have a problem at this point," said Karl Schaefer, general manager of the Sheraton Grande in downtown Los Angeles.

More Problems Predicted

However, Maria Guzman-Kennedy, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Latin Business Assn., said problems for a number of industries are just around the corner.

"There has been a scare and a lot of people are leaving," she said. "There's a lot of confusion. . . . It's going to affect every industry."

In addition, shortages of farm labor have been reported in scattered areas of California. More serious problems have struck the Northwest, where some crops are rotting in the ground due to the lack of field hands.

Gutierrez and other sewing contractors are especially hard-hit because immigrants from Mexico had accounted until recently for 50% to 80% of their sewing machine operators. Most of those workers, they say, arrived after 1982, making them ineligible for legal residency under the new law.

What is more, the labor shortage hits the local rag trade just as contractors are poised to pick up some of their biggest new orders in years. Apparel production is returning to U.S. shores. "Made in the U.S.A." is the new buzz phrase among stores and apparel manufacturers.

Orders on the Rise

Orders for U.S.-made garments are on the rise largely because stricter quotas--imposed last summer on apparel imports from Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea--are making Asian imports more expensive. Delivery and production problems involved in bringing imported goods quickly to market, given today's fast-paced fashion market, also have worked in favor of U.S. manufacturers.

"The minute they say they'll come back to the U.S. to produce here, this (immigration bill) goes through and now people are running away because they are afraid," said Shelly Goldman, chairman of Monarch Knits, a 52-year-old Los Angeles manufacturer and importer. "Factories are now losing 50% of their help."

Factory operators in Los Angeles County last year employed about 82,600, or 73%, of the state's apparel workers. Employment experts say that through April, at least, the number was rising.

"If we're unsuccessful in making things here," said Roland de Aenlle, who has operated Yoko Fashions Ltd. of California for 19 years, "there will be a tremendous amount of pressure to raise quotas again, which will force goods back into the Orient or elsewhere. That's the biggest problem. It will leave manufacturers solely with imports from overseas markets and kill the possibility of creating more jobs."

If the shortage of workers continues, it could drive up wages and other costs for manufacturers, which ultimately will mean higher prices for U.S. shoppers.

Consumers Will Pay

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