Lawn-Care Entrepreneur Faces A Changing Racial Landscape

Nikita Floyd, left, owner of Green Forever, explains a client's sidewalk preferences to foreman Santos Medrano, center, so he can translate the instructions for Juan Salvador.
Nikita Floyd, left, owner of Green Forever, explains a client's sidewalk preferences to foreman Santos Medrano, center, so he can translate the instructions for Juan Salvador. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Krissah Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 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.

"Why don't you have any black workers?" Floyd recalls the minister asking as she threatened to snatch the contract. With many blacks living in the neighborhood and sitting in the church's pews, shouldn't Floyd be hiring them, she wanted to know.

Floyd, 38, owner of Green Forever Landscaping in Upper Marlboro, managed to keep that contract, but 10 years later, he said he feels similar tensions growing as Congress reexamines immigration law.

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.

"I'm only as good as my workers," Floyd said. "If they aren't good, I have nothing to brag about."

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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