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April 2010, Volume 16, Number 2

Midwest, Northeast, Northwest

Michigan. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission issued a 102-page report in March 2010 laying out examples of bad farm worker housing, discrimination and poor working conditions; the Commission made 15 recommendations to state agencies to improve conditions for farm workers, such as inspecting farm worker housing in a timely manner and making farm workers aware of their rights (www.michigan.gov/mdcr/0,1607,7-138--233946--,00.html). The report was based on testimony received by the commission in summer 2009.

The Michigan Farm Bureau attacked the report, asserting that the workers interviewed by the Commission were not representative. However, the Department of Civil Rights promised to schedule meetings with state agencies to encourage them to take steps to improve conditions for farm workers.

Wisconsin. The Hispanic share of hired workers on Wisconsin dairy farms, which employ about 12,500 workers for wages, rose from five percent in 1998 to 40 percent in 2008; 90 percent of the immigrants were born in Mexico. The survey estimated that Wisconsin dairy workers were employed an average 57 hours a week; two-thirds had children.

A report on hired workers employed in Fond du Lac county dairies estimated that half were Hispanic and that most earned $9 to $11 an hour. The owner of a 635-cow farm said that 95 percent of applicants for jobs on this farm were born outside the US, and that many of these immigrants were not hired because they lack experience or expect wages above what the diary is paying.

Colorado. About two-thirds of the 300 H-2A sheepherders in Colorado are from Peru; an eighth are from Mexico, and about 10 percent each are from Bolivia and Chile. Colorado Legal Services reported that most sheepherders are paid $750 a month, and their long hours mean the hourly wage is far less than the $9.88 AEWR minimum wage that non-sheepherders with H-2A visas must be paid in 2010.

Two Peruvian H-2A sheepherders sued John Peroulis & Sons Sheep Inc in April 2010, alleging that they paid recruitment and travel fees to come to the US and work for Peroulis and that Peroulis kept their passports and did not provide sufficient food. One worker left Peroulis in July 2009 and the other left in November 2009. In 2000, the US Department of Labor sued Peroulis & Sons after receiving similar complaints. The DOL suit was settled with Peroulis producing a handbook that lays out the rights of H-2A workers.

New York. The Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act, which would require overtime pay after 10 hours of work in a day or 60 hours a week (55 hours in 2013), was approved in the state Assembly but appeared stalled in the Senate, as occurred in previous years. The FFLPA also requires a day off each week unless farm workers specifically waive their right to a day off and are paid 1.5 times the usual wage on the seventh day of work.

Under current law, only workers on farms that employ more than 10 workers or have quarterly payrolls of over $20,000 must provide unemployment insurance benefits for their workers. The FFLPA would broaden UI coverage to workers on smaller farms and require all farms to provide workers compensation insurance. The FFLPA also establishes a seven-member advisory committee on agricultural collective bargaining to develop a frame work for unionization and bargaining.

A March 2, 2010 hearing featured testimony from advocates arguing that farm workers deserve the same labor protections as other workers. Reverend Richard Witt of the Rural and Migrant Ministry said that there was too much focus on the impacts of the FFLPA on farmers rather than farm workers: "it is easy to get rooted in the discussion of the impact on farmers. It's difficult - or equally easy - to lose sight on the impact upon farm workers. They don't have access to the halls of power that the growers do."

Farmers countered that the FFLPA would raise their costs (by an estimated $200 million a year, according to the New York Farm Bureau) and drive more small farmers out of business. Joe Gergela of the Long Island Farm Bureau made this argument: "Farmers are price takers? subject to competing with the world market on a day-to-day basis. If labor costs go up, it does not mean they can charge more for their product. They are dealing with perishable commodities. That distinguishes us from other sectors."

Batavia Daily News reporter Tom Rivers compiled his experiences picking apples and chopping and throwing cabbage in western New York into a book. Rivers said the work is hard and "not just anybody can do" farm work. Saying that farm workers "have to aim for perfection," Rivers concludes that there is "more pressure on the workers than there is in my job or in most people's jobs."

Vermont. There are an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 foreign-born workers employed on Vermont dairy farms. Most are from Chiapas and earn $8 to $9 an hour working 60- and 70-hour work weeks. Jose Obeth Santiz Cruz of San Isidro, Chiapas died on a dairy farm December 22, 2009, prompting the creation of the Vermont Migrant Farm Worker Solidarity Project.

Washington. Washington farm employers requested 1,700 H-2A workers in 2007, 3,300 in 2008, and 2,100 in 2009. They received approval to hire 1,600, 2,600, and 1,900 H-2A workers, and actually hired 1,200, 2,100, and 1,500.

Peak employment to harvest cherries is estimated at 26,000, and 42,000 to harvest apples and pears. Growers in 2009 reported that some workers who had left farm work for construction returned, explaining why fewer H-2A workers were requested and hired.

Surveys of Washington farm employers suggest an ample supply of farm workers in 2010; many of the additional farm workers had lost construction jobs. John Wines of the Employment Security Department said that statewide farm employment rose 22 percent between January 2009 and January 2010, generating "a huge agricultural labor force at the moment. If the economy recovers slowly, we're not likely to see job shortages in agriculture soon."

Oregon. Senate Bill 100, enacted in 1973, aimed to preserve farm land. However, pear growers in the Rogue River Valley say that SB 100 limits their ability to sell land for housing and preserve pear growing.

Three pear growers, Harry & David, Associated Fruit, and Naumes Fruit Gifts, account for 90 percent of Jackson county pears. Associated Fruit is teetering on bankruptcy and wants to sell some of its farm land for housing and buy land in more remote areas to continue producing pears. Harry & David, which has sales of almost $500 million a year, was bought by private-equity investors for $253 million in 2004. The investors added $245 million in debt to the company's books in 2007, which explains the firm's interest in selling some of its land to pay down debt.

Arizona. The Yuma Sun reported on H-2A workers in January 2010, estimating that Yuma-area farm employers requested 2,500 H-2A workers for the January-March 2010 winter harvest. The AEWR in Arizona in 2010 is $8.70 an hour. The Yuma area employs a peak 50,000 farm workers; half are daily commuters from Mexico.

Most of the vegetable firms requesting H-2A workers are based in Monterey county, California. Valley Pride manager Tim Driscoll said that the harvesting company for Ocean Mist hired 180 H-2A workers between 2006 and 2009 for its Yuma-area operations because "The labor there [in Yuma] is very different from what you get in California," sometimes not returning day after day from Mexico. H-2A workers are ready to work every day, making them preferred.

Gerry Addington, manager of Houston-based Growers Labor Services (www.growerslaborservices.com), said that many growers withdrew requests for H-2A workers after DOL issued new H-2A regulations March 15, 2010.

Idaho. Labor contractor Robert Trevizio Corral of AG Services Inc pleaded guilty in April 2010 to failing to pay income and Social Security taxes owed by farm workers. Corral agreed to pay $771,252 in restitution.

Leslie Griffy, "Salinas Valley ag companies face hiring rule changes," Salinas Californian, April 10, 2010. Mike Irwin, "Thousands of job-seekers look to orchards for paycheck," Wenatchee World, April 6, 2010. Jacob Kushner, "Dairyland diversity: Immigrant work force growing in Fond du Lac county," The Report, March 28, 2010. Dan Wheat, "Use of guestworker program drops," Capital Press, February 5, 2010. Rivers, Tom. 2010. Farm Hands: Hard work and hard lessons from Western New York fields. Batavia Daily News.