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April 2007, Volume 13, Number 2

Farm Labor Shortages

Most news stories in California in winter 2007 emphasized the unemployment and lost earnings of workers displaced by the freeze, but some reported that farmers fear workers who returned to Mexico for Christmas would be unable to return because of stepped up border controls.

The New York Times on April 17, 2007 reported that some workers who had moved from agriculture to construction were returning as construction jobs dried up. One worker complained that "There are too many people for too little field work." The report noted that employment in construction has not fallen as sharply as new building permits, suggesting that subcontractors simply do not call workers to work rather than lay them off.

Most California wine grapes are harvested mechanically, but pruning vines during the winter months is often done by hand at a cost of $300 an acre. Tractor-mounted or pulled mechanical pruning devices can cut spurs down to 12-inch canes, enabling hand pruners to finish pruning much faster. Some grape growers are reluctant to make the investment in mechanical pruning because, if there are problems with the machines, it can be hard to return to hand pruning.

Scully Packing Co. in Finley, one of two remaining pear sheds in Lake county, was featured prominently in 2006 coverage of picking labor shortages in the county; an estimated 25 percent of the county's pears were not picked in summer 2006. SB 319 would allow minors 16- to 17-years of age employed in Lake county pear packing sheds to work more than the usual maximum eight hours per day and 48 hours per week. SB 319 would allow up to 10 hours a day and 60 hours a week during the peak harvest season until 2012. Some 70 local teens worked in pear sheds during summer 2006.

Washington. The state of Washington collects employment and wage data from 600 farm employers each month on seasonal employment during the pay period that includes the 12th of the month; seasonal workers are those employed on the responding farm less than 150 days.

Beginning in July 2006, two questions were added asking employers about labor shortages. About 12 percent of employer-respondents in July 2006, when statewide seasonal worker employment was 60,000, reported that they could not perform certain tasks for lack of seasonal workers, and two percent in December 2006, when statewide seasonal worker employment was 12,000, reported labor shortages (total agricultural employment peaked at 100,000 in June 2006). Reported labor shortages were most common in North Central Area 3.

Growers of asparagus, one of the first labor-intensive crops to be harvested, expected to raise wages from $0.18 to $0.20 a pound to $0.20 to $0.22 a pound; most harvesters expect to earn $100 a day. Other growers are building housing for seasonal workers. Zirkle Fruit Company asked Yakima county to approve eight manufactured homes for 80 seasonal workers. About 200 high-school students worked in Yakima valley agriculture in summer 2006; more are expected in summer 2007.

Statewide, the number of children classified as migrant dropped from 32,000 in March 2005 to 25,000 in March 2006. Officials attribute the drop to fewer newcomers and more farm workers moving to nonfarm jobs.

CRS. The Congressional Research Service issued a report on farm labor shortages that concluded there is no "nationwide shortage of domestically available farmworkers, in part because the government's databases cover authorized and unauthorized employment." The implication is that there is a lack of authorized farm workers, so that effective enforcement of immigration law could lead to farm labor shortages.

Even without enforcement that prevents entry of additional unauthorized farm workers, farm employers say that "no-match" letters from the Social Security Administration lead to workers quitting rather than correcting their records. The presumption is that the employees are unauthorized, and that farm employers who continue to employ such workers could be liable to penalties from the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

All US employers may participate in the Basic Pilot new hire verification system. About 6,600, representing 22,500 work sites, were participating in early 2006.

The CRS report reviews the arguments of employers and advocates. Growers say that there are not sufficient legal workers available to fill especially seasonal jobs, that machines are not available to replace workers, and that raising wages would make US commodities uncompetitive in international markets. Worker advocates counter that employers prefer unauthorized workers who will work hard and scared and that higher wages would have little impact on consumer prices because farm worker wages are typically less than 10 percent of the average retail price of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Eduardo Porter, "For Illegal Immigrants, Housing Slump Takes Toll," New York Times, April 17, 2007. Anna King, "Labor shortage worries farms," Tri-City Herald, March 17, 2007. Levine, Linda. 2007. Farm Labor Shortages and Immigration Policy. Congressional Research Service. January 31.