Skip to navigation

Skip to main content


October 2012, Volume 18, Number 4

Midwest, Northeast, Northwest

Arizona. Yuma, a city of 93,000 on the Mexican border, had the highest unemployment rate among US metro areas in May 2012, 29 percent, reflecting layoffs of seasonal farm workers.

Yuma-area farmers near the Mexican border complained about the H-2A program's requirement that they must provide housing for guest workers. These growers say that their legal Mexican workers prefer to live in Mexico, so that the housing they provide in the US for H-2A workers is vacant. Some border-area growers fear that tougher enforcement will require them to hire more guest workers. They want an exception to the housing requirement so that the H-2A workers they hire can live in Mexico and commute daily to US jobs.

Michigan. Unusual weather that reduced crop yields discouraged South Texas migrants who often travel north from moving to Michigan in summer 2012. Some of those who traveled north quit in the middle of the season because low yields limited their earnings.

A blueberry grower reported raising piece rates from $0.42 to $0.52 a pound to attract workers, but still had fewer workers than desired. There were fewer cherries and apples to pick in Michigan in 2012.

Craig Anderson, Michigan Farm Bureau's agricultural labor manager, says that the lack of an efficient labor exchange produced simultaneous labor shortages and surpluses: "We struggle every year with pockets of over supply and under supply. We really don't have a good communication system out there that would help."

Berrybrook Enterprises, which is licensed to house hundreds of berry workers, was accused in August 2012 of failing to abide by a 2010 agreement with DOL to improve its worker housing.

Texas. Some workers from the Rio Grande Valley migrate to northern states each summer to do farm work. Farms that recruit south Texas workers are required to provide them with details of their wages and working conditions, transportation and housing arrangements, and other job-related information. Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid has been aggressive in filing suits on behalf of south Texas workers who say that farm employers in northern states such as Michigan violate their promises.

In July 2012, TRGLA sued Monsanto and recruiter Hermilo Cantu of Milo, alleging that Cantu made promises that were not kept to workers who went north in 2010 to detassel corn in Iowa and Indiana. The workers say they were promised $80 an acre for detasseling and four months of work plus free housing with kitchens, but received the minimum wage of $7.25 for a month of work and had to pay $300 a month to live in a former nursing home.

Maine. The blueberry harvest began August 1, 2012, with hundreds of workers moving into temporary camps at Jasper Wyman & Son, the largest Maine blueberry grower and processor. In August 2011, workers "raked" 83 million pounds of Maine blueberries worth $70 million. The 2012 harvest is expected to top 95 million pounds. The workers include Micmacs (First Nation Indians) from Canada and Mexicans.

Maine had a record lobster catch in summer 2012; lobster prices dropped from $4 a pound to $2 a pound. Most lobsters are sold via restaurants, which have been slow to pass on the savings to their customers. Many Maine lobsters are processed for institutional markets like cruise ships and restaurant chains in Canada.

New York. A Mexican employed by Sheland Farms in upstate New York for eight years was charged with vehicular manslaughter in July 2012 after a crash that killed a fellow worker. The man told authorities that he and his fellow worker used "work names" to complete I-9 hiring forms. In April 2011, John Barney of Butterville Farms pleaded guilty to hiring unauthorized workers and paid a $3,000 fine.

Migrant workers often lack bank accounts and carry cash, making them targets of local thieves. Local teens in August 2012 were arrested and accused of assaulting and robbing Sheldon-area migrants.

Pennsylvania. Kennett Square, the self-proclaimed Mushroom Capital of the World, is an industry dominated by the descendants of Italian immigrants who hire Mexican immigrants. The Chester county mushroom industry, which produces half of US mushrooms, uses a combination of horse manure and other waste material such as cocoa shells and corn cobs to produce white-button mushrooms in windowless cinder-block houses.

There are about 60 mushroom growers in Chester county, a high-cost of living area. Ex-mushroom pickers have settled in the area, which has a rising share of Hispanics.

North Dakota. Diverse Energy Systems, which makes steel tanks and other supplies for the state's oil industry in Grafton, is converting duplexes that once housed migrant farm workers into housing for its workers. Diverse says that the refurbished migrant housing will be transitional for newly hired welders who earn $16 to $18 an hour.

Colorado. Jensen Farms in southeastern Colorado shipped organic cantaloupes contaminated with Listeria in September 2011, killing 37 people and sickening 147. Jensen Farms and its auditor, Texas-based Bio Food Safety, filed for bankruptcy in 2012. A $4.5 million fund has been established to provide payments to the victims.

Jensen was fined $4,250 by DOL in 2012 for housing workers in substandard conditions in the Gateway Motel in Holly, which it owned.

Oregon. The Oregon Farm Bureau Federation in August 2012 complained that US Department of Labor inspectors were threatening to impose "hot goods" holds on blueberries harvested with child labor in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. In order to release the blueberries so they can be sold, the farms have been asked to place funds in an escrow account and sign a consent agreement.

The OFBF says that, even if an employer contests the underlying FLSA violation that triggered a judge issuing an injunction to prevent hot goods from entering interstate commerce and wins, DOL does not have to pay for the grower's losses if the perishable fruit spoils. Pan-American Berry Growers of Salem, B&G Ditchen Farms of Silverton and E&S Farms of Woodburn on August 18, 2012 agreed to pay more than $30,000 in penalties under consent decrees with DOL for wage violations. The affected 1,100 workers will receive $200,000 in back wages.

The OFBF says that DOL investigators have determined that harvesters can pick 50 to 68 pounds of blueberries per hour. If farm records show higher productivity, the OFBF says that DOL assumes several workers are picking under one SSN, and that their average hourly earnings are less than the minimum wage.

Farmers say that worker productivity is far higher than assumed by DOL. B&G Ditchen Farms said that 17 employees picked 112 to 196 pounds per hour. DOL says that the wage and hour records at the farms it investigated were very poor, and that it used the threat of a hot-goods hold on the berries because over 1,100 workers at the three farms "were systematically being underpaid." PCUN, Oregon's Farmworker Union, said that its surveys of piece-rate workers found that up to 90 percent did not always earn the minimum wage at farmer-set piece rates.

In a similar case, PTM Berry Farms and Vicente Labor Contractor of Ferndale, Washington in September 2012 agreed to pay $32,000 each in civil penalties for allowing four children between the ages of eight and 11 to pick blueberries. PTM and the contractor said that the four children were delivering lunches to their parents rather than picking berries; the growers said they nonetheless signed the DOL consent order to save their crop. PTM said it paid a piece rate of $0.26 a pound to pick blueberries.

Hillsboro strawberry grower Roy Malensky said he had to raise the piece rate for picking berries from $2.25 to $3 per tray to get the usual 200-person picking crew.

The Oregonian September 29, 2012 reported that child labor was common on berry farms. The parents of children who worked, and who are usually credited for their work on their parents' time sheets, told the reporter that they want their teen-age children to develop a work ethic and help contribute to the family's income.

Oregon has few state inspectors to enforce state laws against hiring children as farm workers. During the 1990s, the state had a 12-person farm labor unit with full-time field investigators, but today has only one farm labor investigator who responds to complaints of children working. Between 2002 and 2012, there were 42 reports of children working in Oregon agriculture, and the state issued six fines totaling $12,850. Oregon's OSHA visits over 300 farms a year, and its inspectors can refer suspected violations to the farm labor law unit.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued River Point Farms, the largest US onion grower, in October 2012 for allowing a supervisor to harass a female worker between 2005 and 2010. The suit alleges that the supervisor encouraged the woman's husband, who was also employed at River Point Farms (, to beat his wife and try to kill her. The suit alleges that River Point Farms created a hostile work environment for the woman.

The EEOC also filed suits against two Washington farms, an egg farm operated by National Food Corporation and Roy Farms.

Washington. The Governor's Ag Labor Workgroup in July 2012 emphasized that an enforcement-only approach to unauthorized immigration threatens the state's labor-intensive agriculture. The Workgroup recommended comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to legal residence for currently unauthorized farm workers, modifying the so-called three-ten bar that prevents unauthorized foreigners who have been in the US for more than six months from re-entering legally for three to 10 years, and making the process of issuing visas to guest workers more efficient.

At the state level, the Workgroup recommended more housing for farm workers, studies on factors needed to keep farm workers in farm work, and better labor market information.

Fears of too few pickers are spurring efforts to improve mechanical apple and cherry pickers. USDA developed a shake-and-catch cherry harvester in 2002 that works when trees have a Y-trellis architecture, a style of planting and pruning that is spreading to newly planted orchards.

Efforts to harvest apples mechanically and to raise worker productivity with mechanical aids continues. The aids are often hydraulic platforms that allow pickers to pick apples and place them in vacuum tubes to be conveyed into bins. A Picker Technologies-Oxbo machine can sort apples as they move through the tubes and direct them to the appropriate bin, while a $100,000 DBR Conveyor Concepts machine simply moves apples through the tubes and into bins without sorting. The hydraulic platforms can also be used for pruning and thinning tree fruit.

Engineers say that workers can hand-pick 15 apples a minute if they must check their color, and 30 apples a minute if they are strip picking. Using a platform and tubes increases worker productivity by 50 to 100 percent and allows workers who are reluctant to climb up and down trees with bags of fruit to be harvesters.