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July 2020, Volume 26, Number 3

Florida, Southeast

Immokalee in southwestern Florida emerged as a Covid-19 hotspot in June 2020 after 900 of 2,500 people tested, 36 percent, were found to be infected. Some of the workers based in Immokalee travel north for the summer months, harvesting crops along the eastern seaboard. These migrants could spread the virus.

Lake Worth, Belle Glade, and other cities with large numbers of farm workers were also hotspots for Covid-19. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said in June 2020 that Covid cases were ?overwhelmingly Hispanic farmworkers,? drawing widespread criticism. DeSantis said 90 percent of the 100 workers on a watermelon farm in Alachua County tested positive.

Florida produces tomatoes between October and June, including mature green round tomatoes and smaller grape and cherry tomatoes. Some 26 million 25-pound boxes of round tomatoes were shipped in 2018-19, continuing a downward trend in Florida tomato shipments from 38 million boxes in 2011-12. Grower prices are typically $15 to $20 a box between October and February, and decline toward $10 a box as the season winds down in the spring.

Plum, grape, and cherry tomatoes added about 30 percent to Florida?s round tomato shipments, making total shipments 40 million 25-pound equivalent boxes in 2018-19. The 98 million 25-pound equivalent boxes of tomatoes imported from Mexico in 2018 are mostly vine-ripened and preferred by US consumers.

If 40 million boxes of Florida tomatoes had an average grower price of $20, reflecting the fact that non-round tomatoes are more valuable, tomato revenues are $800 million a year for a billion pounds of tomatoes. At two cents a pound for picking, labor costs are $50 million.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has for two decades worked to improve wages and working conditions for workers who pick tomatoes and other vegetables. By organizing boycotts of the fast-food chains that buy many of Florida?s round tomatoes, the CIW persuaded restaurants and supermarkets to sign unto its Fair Food Program that adds a penny a pound to the piece-rate wage for picking round tomatoes and makes Florida?s seven major tomato growers responsible for compliance with labor laws on their farms.

The CIW had $2.8 million in revenue in 2017, almost all from grants, to advocate on behalf of farm workers. There were no elections on the farms participating in the Fair Food Program to determine whether workers wanted the program, and the CIW does not have a leadership elected by the workers it represents.

Most Florida tomatoes are not picked under the Fair Food Program, so workers receive the FFP bonus piece rate only on a part of their production. The piece rate in 2010 was $0.50 per 32-pound bucket for mature green round tomatoes and $3.75 per bucket for grape tomatoes.

Workers at one farm picked an average 22 buckets of mature green tomatoes per hour and 2.7 buckets of grape tomatoes an hour. There was significant variance in worker productivity: some workers averaged 10 or fewer buckets of mature greens per hour, while others averaged 40 or more buckets per hour, a ratio of four to one between the most and least productive workers.

A study of 800 workers found average earnings of $11 an hour in 2010 for picking mature greens and $10 an hour for picking grape tomatoes, when the Florida minimum wage was $7.25 an hour. Over the 40- to 50-day harvesting season, workers earned an average $1,450 or $290 a week, and received a seasonal bonus of $115 for the share of tomatoes that were picked and sold to buyers participating in the CIW?s Fair Food Program. The FFP bonus added eight percent to earnings, with faster pickers gaining a larger share of bonus payments. Most of the tomatoes picked on the sample farm were not purchased by FFP buyers.

Georgia. Reyes Quality Berry Farm of Poulan was debarred from the H-2A program in spring 2020 for three years and ordered to pay $47,675 in back wages to 32 H-2A workers. Reyes did not provide work for three-fourths of the contract period, and provided WHD investigators with false records.

Bland Farms in southern Georgia, which uses H-2A workers to harvest Vidalia onions, in spring 2020 organized workers into groups of 15 that lived and worked together and did not interact with other crews of 15 workers to minimize the spread of Covid-19. Many farm employers? groups workers into crews and prohibits them from interacting in order to limit the spread of Covid.

Seven US states did not order their residents to stay home in March and April 2020. Georgia was among the first states that had ordered residents to stay home to reopen in April, 2020, after 19,000 Covid-19 cases and 800 deaths. Georgia has 10 million people, and 1.1 million applied for unemployment benefits in March-April 2020.

Ku, Hyejin. 2019. The effect of wage subsidies on piece rate workers: Evidence from the Penny Per Pound program in Florida. Journal of Development Economics. Dias-Abey, Manoj. 2019. A Socio-Legal History of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

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