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Labor Pains

Coping, advocating, and possible solutions
Legal Ease

The shortage of agricultural workers has been an issue for decades. This article presents a current snapshot of the labor crisis, the government’s proposed remedy for the situation, and how fresh produce growers are coping with it.

Agriculture has long depended on migrant workers, many of them illegal immigrants, to fill the gap for seasonal work. And since most fruit and vegetable production is labor-intensive, an insufficient workforce creates a ripple effect throughout the fresh produce supply chain. Over the last several years, an improved Mexican economy and tougher border control have amplified the deficit, with the available number of workers dropping by more than 20 percent from 2002 to 2014, and by nearly 40 percent in California, according to a recent Partnership for a New American Economy report.

Impact & Consequences
Although the dearth of workers has significantly impacted growers, for the seasonal laborers who are available, there has been a benefit: higher pay. In Michigan, apple pickers can earn from $20 to $24 per hour, a sharp increase from the previous $12 to $16 an hour. Another example is citrus. “Lemon workers can earn $28 to $30 per hour for piece work,” reports Alex Teague, chief operating officer and senior vice president of Limoneira Company of Santa Paula, CA. “But it is very hard work,” he concedes, and many people don’t want to do it regardless of the wage.

Tom Nassif, president of the Western Growers Association (WGA), echoes the same thought. In his opinion, higher wages and benefits like pensions, health care, and vacations make little difference. Americans, he stresses, don’t want the work. “Raising wages doesn’t increase the workforce,” he says, pointing out that when one grower is short workers and raises the piece rate, it usually draws laborers from another farm, exacerbating the situation. Other growers are then forced to raise their rates, with workers moving to the best wages, and so on. Ultimately, nothing really changes. “It’s still the same number of workers,” Nassif says.

The aging of migrant workers and changing attitude of family members have also added to the crisis. From 2008 to 2012, over 27 percent of migrant workers were 45 years of age or older, nearly double the rate from a decade earlier. “These are skilled workers,” explains Diane Smith, executive director of the Lansing-based Michigan Apple Committee. “But they’re getting older and their children are not going into the business—they want something better for themselves.”

Guest Worker Program
While the intentions of the federal guest worker program may be altruistic in preventing terrible working conditions and draconian practices, today’s solution is cumbersome and full of imperfections.