Lawn-Care Entrepreneur Faces A Changing Racial Landscape

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.

"There was a lot of resentment on the part of many African Americans because they lost their jobs," Hutchinson said. "African Americans don't even look at that [sector] anymore because it is not open to them, or they believe it is closed to them."

It distresses Floyd to be placed in that camp.

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.

"I got tired of the way things were going," Floyd said.

Green Forever's start coincided with a wave of migration. Between 1990 and 2000, the region's foreign-born population increased by 71 percent. Many recent immigrants can earn more than 10 times as much for low-skilled labor in the United States than in their home countries, and Floyd saw in them a thirst for survival.

He wanted workers who were hungry for the jobs he offered, as he was after dropping out of college and starting the business with a loan from his mother to buy a walk-behind lawnmower, a tiller and a weed whacker.

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.

Not all of the immigrants were stellar. One stole Floyd's truck radio, he said. Others were always looking for a job that paid even 25 cents more per hour.

But Floyd instituted raises and bonuses for the best workers and asked the guys to teach him a few words of Spanish.

"Good job cutting the grama," he would say, mispronouncing a Spanish word for grass.

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.

"That's what we're here for, to work and pay for everything," he said with a laugh.

In 1998, he left Floyd for a year to launch a landscaping business, which flopped because he did not have the capital to compete with well-heeled companies.

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.

"Walter didn't know he was supposed to meet me on Hill Road. Make sure he's clear to do that," Floyd told Medrano, who ended up leaving his sick bed for a few hours to get all the work crews in place.

"Sometimes when he's not there," Floyd said later, "guys just start having a little bit of confusion."

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.

Floyd bought a 12-acre farm in Upper Marlboro and grew wealthy. He has time to focus on other interests, including a pilot script he is writing for a home-and-garden sitcom he hopes to pitch to television networks.

This year, he plans to step back even further from the day-to-day operations of Green Forever and hire a salaried operations manager.

The job won't go to Santos Medrano, Floyd's right-hand man.

"Santos can't do it," Floyd said recently, citing his head foreman's lack of education. "Maybe his son could."

Medrano has accepted that. His hope is in his 6-year-old son, who wants to be a pilot, or Superman.

"He speaks English better than Spanish," Medrano said with pride.

Floyd said he'll pick "the best person" for the job. "I would love to hire an African American. Someone who would stick by me and just want to work."

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