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January 2013, Volume 19, Number 1

Florida, Southeast

Labor Cases. Vegetable farmer Swash Farms of Homestead and packer Jalaram Produce agreed to pay $232,000 in back wages after DOL investigators found that workers were not being paid the federal minimum wage of $7.25 in 2010 and 2011. The employers also violated the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act by not disclosing wages and other employment conditions to newly hired workers. The employers said they were innocent, but paid what DOL demanded to settle the charges.

Bulls-Hit Ranch & Farm of Hastings, Florida and labor contractor Ronald Uzzle were accused in April 2012 of recruiting drug-dependent Black men from homeless shelters to work in Bulls-Hit potato packing operations; the workers accumulated debts for housing, food and drugs. Thomas R. Lee, who owns Bulls-Hit Ranch and Farm, faced the same charges in 2004 with a different labor contractor, while contractor Uzzle was a defendant in labor and racketeering lawsuits in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

In October 2012, Bulls-Hit agreed to pay workers directly rather than via contractors and to use only licensed contractors to obtain workers.

Tomatoes. Florida and Mexico supply most of the fresh tomatoes consumed in the US between November and April. In 1996, Mexico and the US agreed on a minimum price of 21.69 cents a pound for Mexican tomatoes exported to the US in winter months to protect Florida grown-tomatoes from low-priced imports. Florida tomato sales have been falling, to $250 million in 2011, while Mexican tomato exports to the US rose to $1.8 billion. An estimated 350,000 Mexicans are employed to produce tomatoes for export.

Florida growers in September 2012 asked the US Department of Commerce to rule that Mexico was violating the minimum-price agreement by dumping tomatoes in the US. Mexico countered that it produces the vine-ripened tomatoes favored by consumers rather than the mature greens produced in Florida and favored by the fast-food industry. Mexico in October 2012 offered to raise the minimum price of the winter tomatoes it exports to the US from 25.68 cents to 27.02 cents a pound, depending on variety.

East Coast Brokers and Packers, which planted 1,500 acres of tomatoes in Florida in 2011-12, was on the verge of sharply reducing production for 2012-13. Immokalee-based Nobles-Collier and Palmetto-based Woody's Tomato stopped producing tomatoes at the end of the 2011-12 season.

Oranges. Florida's orange acreage dropped from 600,000 acres in 2000 to 435,000 acres in 2012; production is predicted to be less than 150 million boxes in 2012-13. The use of mechanical harvesters has decreased, as growers worry that trees weakened by citrus greening, a bacterial disease, cannot withstand machines shaking the oranges off trees. In 2011-12, less than 9,500 acres or about two percent of Florida oranges were machine harvested, down from a peak of almost eight percent in 2008-09.

Citrus greening was discovered in 2005, and today infects three-fourths of Florida's orange trees in all 32 citrus-producing counties in the state. A combination of greening-weakened trees, high prices for oranges and an adequate supply of labor combined to reduce mechanical harvesting. If the Environmental Protection Agency approves an abscission chemical known as "CMNP" in 2013 as expected, mechanical harvesting could increase because there would be less tree damage if the trees did not have to be shaken as much.

Georgia. Hamilton Growers of Norman Park in December 2012 agreed to pay $500,000 to settle an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission suit that charged Hamilton with terminating its US workers to create and preserve jobs for Mexican H-2A workers between 2001 and 2011. Hamilton, doing business as Southern Valley Fruit & Vegetable, denied discriminating against US workers. Hamilton said it settled the suit to avoid more legal costs.

The EEOC charged that Hamilton required US workers to pick fields that had already been picked by H-2A workers, which lowered their piece-rate earnings and gave US workers fewer hours of work than the H-2A workers. Leah Lottoof Georgia Legal Services said that "discrimination against American workers in the H-2A guest worker program is endemic."

The agreement requires Hamilton to make a good faith effort to retain 65 percent of non-H-2A workers who meet specified production targets during training periods, make packing shed positions available to US workers, and allocate half of non-administrative supervisory positions to US workers.

Georgia's HB 56 law required employers of 500 or more workers to use E-Verify to check the legal status of new hires beginning January 1, 2012, and those with 100 or more employees to begin to use E-Verify July 1, 2012. Beginning July 1, 2013, employers with 11 or more employees must enroll in E-Verify (employers with 10 or fewer employees do not have to enroll).

Mississippi. Silent Shade Planting Company in Belzoni is a 7,500-acre farm that hires eight South African workers under the H-2A program; total employment is 24. Silver Shade puts the cost of hiring South Africans at about $7,500 each, including airfare of $6,500.

North Carolina. North Carolina's 7,500 H-2A workers were over 10 percent of the 70,000 H-2A farm workers in the US in 2011. The North Carolina Growers Association said that 270 US workers applied for the 7,500 jobs that it advertised; its request for Mexican workers with H-2A visas was reduced by 270.

The Vass-based NCGA, which calls itself the largest user of the H-2A guest worker program, charges its grower members $1,000 for each H-2A worker.

The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) represents the workers that NCGA provides to its member growers. At the end of each season, NCGA farmers distinguish "preferred" workers who completed the season and the farmer would like to hire again from "no return" workers whom the farmer does not want to hire again. Farmers can designate preferred workers who were employed by them in previous seasons and those who were employed by other NCGA farmers. Preferred workers can "bid" for jobs on particular farms via FLOC.

Kevin Bouffard, "Mechanical Harvesting Declines by 74 percent," Ledger, November 25, 2012.