Possible labor shortage concerns Western growers as harvest peaks

08/02/2011 05:31:00 PM
Vicky Boyd

Spring in California’s Central Valley was marked by a prolonged cool spell, followed by spikes in temperature. The sudden hot weather caused many of the crops, such as stone fruit, to come off all at once, prompting a need for a speedy harvest and more workers.

California has about 500,000 total seasonal workers, Cunha says. During the peak harvest in July and August, Cunha says the Central Valley alone needs about 230,000 workers.

To make up the shortfall, some growers have turned to H2-A guest workers. Among the steps employers must take to qualify are providing transportation and housing and paying the area’s going wage as determined by the Department of Labor.

Most growers give up because the application process is so arduous, Cunha says, citing the 300-page application as an example.

What he says he fears is a repeat of 1998, when the Central Valley was short about 80,000 workers.

“Right now what I’m hearing is what happened in 1998,” he says.

Legislation passed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson created a welfare-to-work program that enlisted the help of agricultural employers. The theory was welfare recipients could be trained to do farm work and fill the gaps created by migratory labor.

Of the 137,000 people on welfare who were eligible to work, 503 applied for positions, Cunha says. Of those, only three showed up to go to the field, and none completed a day’s work.

Disaster in Georgia

California growers say their labor concerns relate to their counterparts in Georgia, who began seeing labor shortages shortly after the governor signed a tough new immigration enforcement law on May 13. Yet the law, which is similar to Arizona’s, actually didn’t go into effect until July 1.

South Carolina and Alabama also have enacted laws that are as tough as or tougher than Arizona’s.

“There were rumors that there were roadblocks of county law enforcement and state law enforcement waiting for harvest crews to come up from Florida to Georgia,” says Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association in LaGrange.

Harvest crews that did make the trip north from Florida arrived with only onethird to one-half of the workers. Even many farm workers who lived in Georgia and had legal work status decided to leave the state to avoid hassles.

At the same time, a lingering drought in Georgia caused vegetable crops to come off much faster than normal, Hall says.

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