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July 2012, Volume 18, Number 3

Midwest, Northeast, Northwest

Michigan. Ontario's Mastronardi Produce, owner of the $25 million Maroa hydroponic tomato greenhouse in Coldwater, was certified to fill 54 jobs with H-2A workers. Farmworker Legal Services of Michigan complained to DOL, asserting that year-round jobs in a greenhouse should not be filled with seasonal H-2A workers paid $10.78 an hour. Mastronardi promised 100 jobs and received tax incentives to build the greenhouse, which opened late in 2011.

Mastronardi CEO Kevin Safrance said that the H-2A workers supplement the local workers hired during the peak picking season between May and October. However, Legal Services says that some local workers who applied for jobs at the greenhouse were not hired, possibly in anticipation of the arrival of H-2A workers. FLS says that Mastronardi prefers "captive" H-2A workers to US workers who can change jobs.

Ohio. The Ohio Department of Job & Family Services estimated 12,500 migrant workers in the state in 2011, down 15 percent since 2009 due to less acreage of labor-intensive crops such as fresh market tomatoes (3,200 acres in 2011) and cucumbers (2,200 acres in 2011).

Indiana. Rose Acre Farms of Seymour was charged with discrimination by requesting more proof of employment eligibility from newly hired non-US citizens. Rose Acre purchased an electronic employment eligibility verification software system in June 2009, when the practice allegedly began. Rose Acre, whose work force is 45 percent Hispanic, disputes the government's contention that it discriminated in hiring.

Pennsylvania. The Humane Society of the United States accused Kreider Farms of Mannheim, which has five million egg-laying chickens, of housing the chickens in crowded cages. Kreider is one of the state's largest dairy and egg farms. Earlier in 2012, an ICE audit of Kreider found that a third of its 300 employees had provided false documents to get hired.

New York. Torrey Farms Inc. of Elba was profiled in a July 2, 2012 story on farm labor shortages. The farm, which had 3,500 acres of corn, summarized its labor recruitment strategy as follows: "We hire anybody who shows up for field work."

Maine. A former employee of Decoster Egg Farms in Turner alleged in April 2012 that he was not paid overtime. Moark LLC, a subsidiary of Land O' Lakes, signed a long-term lease-purchase of DeCoster at the end of 2011.

Vermont. There are an estimated 1,500 mostly unauthorized workers employed on the state's dairies, prompting efforts to provide special driver's licenses to unauthorized workers.

Massachusetts. The US Department of Labor alleged in June 2012 that Chang & Sons paid 14 farm workers $350 to $450 a week to pick and pack bean sprouts. Workers sometimes worked far more than 40 hours a week, so that their hourly earnings were less than $7.25 an hour. DOL in 2009 required Chang & Sons to pay $4,200 in back wages to its workers.

Connecticut. Imperial Nurseries in Granby, Connecticut is testing robots built by alumni of iRobot, the maker of the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner and surveillance bots for the military. Harvest Automation makes machines that move nursery plants, while Rethink Robotics is developing $15,000 collaborative robots that aim to make the workers they work alongside more productive.

Nurseries keep plants close together in winter and spread them out in summer; workers are hired to move the plants two at a time. The Harvest Automation robot, which costs $30,000, moves plants one at a time, but can work around the clock and carry up to 20 pounds.

Washington. Some Washington State asparagus growers said they left 10 percent of their crop in the fields in June 2012 because of labor shortages. Washington has about 5,000 acres of asparagus, which can grow five or six inches a day in hot weather. In Franklin county, asparagus growers in May 2012 complained of labor shortages despite a local unemployment rate of 11 percent.

DOL certified 3,182 jobs in Washington State to be filled by H-2A workers in 2011. The Washington Farm Labor Association expects over 3,500 jobs to be certified in 2012 at the state's AEWR of $10.92 an hour; the state's minimum wage is $9.04. Washington may have record cherry and apple crops in 2012, prompting more applications for H-2A guest workers. One cherry grower said that he had to "send our production manager to California to talk to people to make sure we had enough workers lined up" for the harvest.

Foreman Fruit of Wenatchee complained of an inability to recruit apple pickers at $150 a day in fall 2011, but says that obtaining workers through the H-2A program is too expensive. Stemilt AgServices, which employs a peak 1,200 orchard workers, had 250 H-2A workers in 2009, but replaced some of them with cheaper FLC-supplied workers in 2010 and 2011. McDougall & Sons plans to use prison labor again in 2012 despite a $22 an hour cost. McDougall plans to hire 360 H-2A workers in 2012, up from 310 in 2011.

HerbCo International faced a $1 million fine and criminal sanctions in April 2012 after an I-9 audit found that 214 of 334 employees who completed I-9 forms that were reviewed were unauthorized. Most quit, but HerbCo laid off 86 who were working at the time of the audit. The 150-acre herb farm near Duvall, Washington replaced the fired workers with temps from Labor Ready, but then rehired some of the experienced workers it fired when production dropped. They worked at night and were paid in cash.

Oregon. In 2009, the state's 350 nurseries that employed an average 11 workers sometime during the year and generated $1 billion in sales. Oregon's nursery industry expanded by almost 50 percent since immigration reform in the late 1980s with relatively flat real wages.

Average hourly earnings are lowest in the spring, when employment is highest, because seasonal workers are paid less than more skilled year-round workers. Rising minimum wages are not fully passed on to the more skilled workers who earn more than the minimum wage, so that a rising minimum wage can compress the wage distribution and encourage more skilled nursery workers to move to nonfarm jobs.

Some economists believe that the supply of workers to Oregon agriculture is highly elastic, allowing growers to expand without raising wages. In many cases, workers already employed by a nursery recommend friends and relatives to fill vacant jobs. Most newly hired workers have just arrived in the US and are earning far higher wages than they would at home.

Scott Kirsner, "Will lower-skilled workers get pushed out by robots," Boston Globe, June 24, 2012.

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