“I just did it on the side, to pay the rent,” he said.
But a funny thing happened. He was struck by how many customers were so enthusiastic when he and his co-workers did a good job. That was because so many of them had experienced moving nightmares.
“I saw a need, a market,” he said. “There was a need for a quality moving company. Up until then, I got paid cash. As soon as I decided to do it seriously, I did everything by the book. I didn’t want to run an under-the-radar, half-arsed business.”
In 1980, he founded Gentle Giant Moving in Somerville, and grew it into one of the real gems in the industry. Today, it does about $20 million in business in New England each year and has offices in nine states.
Moving is a seasonal business — the summer is busy, the winter is sleepy — and O’Toole’s company has 250 workers in the low season and 650 in the busiest months. O’Toole relies on seasonal workers, 70 of them foreign nationals from six different countries whom he hires through the H-2B visa program for temporary nonagricultural work.
“They pay them in cash, they let them drive when they shouldn’t be driving, and they are not paying workers comp or payroll taxes or withholding taxes,” he said. “The bottom line is they are exploiting these workers and not doing the right thing.”
With so much talk about immigration since Donald Trump was elected president, there’s been little about companies that exploit undocumented workers, and even less about what it does to employers like Gentle Giant who play by the rules.
“Two of my Lithuanian workers were offered $20 an hour, in cash, if they overstayed their visas and went to work for another company,” O’Toole said. “We’ve had people solicited by other companies, asking them to come over on holiday visas.”
O’Toole is an immigrant, arriving here from Ireland in 1966, and he is hardly a round-them-up advocate. He has sympathy for the ordinary immigrant just trying to make a living. He’s not talking about some guy with a couple of trucks. He’s talking about companies that can afford to play by the rules but consciously decide to lower their overhead and maximize their profits by flouting the law and exploiting undocumented workers.
Gentle Giant has long been considered a good employer, recognized as a top small business by the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal and the Better Business Bureau, among others. One of the reasons it is recognized as such is because it invests in its employees, with training and benefits.
“We were the first ones to bring workers over on H-2B visas. We paid them the same as Americans, and treated them with total respect,” he said. “But things have changed in recent years. We’re losing business to people who don’t do what’s right. We’re struggling. We’re really hurting.”
It’s hard to get Americans to do the work, which is physically demanding and fluctuates so much with the seasons. And it’s getting harder to play by the rules.
O’Toole used to hire foreign students who hold J-1 visas and typically come here in the summer to work seasonal jobs. But the federal government just deemed moving hazardous work, and after this summer J-1 visa holders will be forbidden from doing it, at least legally.
While fear and panic has spread in many immigrant communities, about rumored or real roundups by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, employers who exploit undocumented immigrants don’t seem nearly as on edge.
“There’s no enforcement,” O’Toole said. “No genuine oversight.”
The workers sweat. The bosses, not so much.