Immigration: NBC’s Spotlight on Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley

A sampling of some of the immigration issues in the Roaring Fork Valley, the area between Vail and Aspen that also includes the towns of Carbondale, Basalt and Glenwood Springs, was recently highlighted on a NBC News special with Tom Brokaw. One of the storylines featured the family owned Gould Construction and the dilemma with the shortage of manual laborers in this rural resort region. The news broadcast filmed immigrants, some with documents that could have been counterfeit, applying for Gould Construction positions and being hired.Owners Mark and Brett Gould noted that without this immigrant labor force at a starting wage of $14 an hour, their construction business would falter and roads and houses would not be built. “White kids coming out of high school don’t want to dig ditches,” Brett Gould lamented. On the other hand, he noted that the Latinos are eager to have these positions and most are hard working and dependable.

There has been a surprising response since the NBC News special has aired. Gould Construction has received over 600 employment inquiries from across the country, people willing to replace the immigrant workers. Apparently $14 an hour is a livable wage in many parts of the nation-but not in the shadow of Aspen and Vail ski areas.

Two important facts that NBC News program failed to emphasize was the cost of living in the mountains and the lack of housing. For instance, there are six pages of help wanted ads in the local Post Independent newspaper and only a half page of rentals listed.

A full time job paying $14 an hour equals a monthly gross wage of around $2400. That doesn’t go far when rent for a two bedroom apartment-if you can find it–averages $1300 a month in the Roaring Fork region. Housing prices starting at $350,000 are way beyond the reach of an entry level employee and most middle-income families. The housing crunch is so severe that oil and gas companies have received permission from the Garfield County government to maintain temporary “man camps” at their drilling sites.

Interestingly, not only is home construction attracting and maintaining an immigrant labor force, but so is this housing shortage. As shown in the NBC News special, it is not unusual for several immigrant extended families to live together. This is highly efficient under an impossibly tight housing market in the Roaring Fork Valley.

On the other hand, most Anglo families prefer to live as single family units, so there is simply not enough housing available, let alone affordable, to accommodate them in this resort area. Those 600 callers to Gould Construction would have no problem acquiring jobs in the Roaring Fork Valley, but they would find either no place to live or have enough money to subsist after paying rent or a mortgage.

This all leads back to the Gould brothers’ dependence on immigrant workers to help build the much needed houses and apartments. Without this labor pool, documented or not, commerce growth in the Roaring Fork Valley would come to a halt.

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Leslie Robinson

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