During the summer of 1998, grower organizations
announced a series of farm labor shortages, asserting that there were only half
the workers needed to cut bunches of green grapes and lay them on paper trays
to produce sun-dried raisins.
Perhaps the most extreme assertion was that of Manuel Cunha of the Nisei
Farmers League, who in early September 1998 claimed that San Joaquin Valley
growers were short 80,000 of their usual 230,000 seasonal workers, and
requested prison inmates, the National Guard, or delayed school starts to help
harvest crops such as raisins. One grower said: "There is only one
solution--allow guest laborers to come here for two or three months."
EDD reported that there were 1,182 openings for farm workers listed in its
job bank in the 13-county Central Valley in September 1998.
The most typical employer complaint was that more workers were wanted than
showed up to work. Many growers raised piece rate wages, but not by as much as
the minimum wage rose. The California minimum wage rose from $4.25 an hour in
1996 to $5.75 in 1998, or 35 percent. Typical piece rates for picking raisins
in 1996 were $0.17 a tray in 1996; typical piece rates in 1998 were
$0.20-$0.21, or 18 to 24 percent higher.
The California Farm Bureau Federation in July 1998 listed farm labor and
farm worker housing shortages as the two top labor issues in 1998. The CFBF
said that "there have been reports of farm labor shortages throughout the
state" due to low earnings at usual piece rates because of El Nino, the
availability of nonfarm jobs and INS processing delays. However the major
reason, according to CFBF, is "wholesale unemployment insurance fraud," with
workers drawing UI benefits under one SSN while working under another.
California farmers in August 1998 were invited to call 800-698-3276 and
report "the number of workers you needed and the number you were short." In
September, 1998, the Fresno County Farm Bureau hosted a meeting at which
growers planned to ask the governor to mobilize the National Guard as a last
resort to obtain raisin harvesters and the Fresno County sheriff to release
prison inmates to be harvest workers.
There are 125,000 to 150,000 acres of raisin grapes around Fresno,
California. Some 40,000 to 50,000 harvest workers are employed for the four-
to six-week harvest, making raisin harvesting the single largest harvest
activity in North America. There is a labor shortage ever year in raisin
harvesting, as growers wait to harvest as long as possible to increase the
sugar content of the grapes, but must have their raisins cut and laid on paper
trays to dry by a cut off date to get crop insurance in case of rain, in 1998
by September 20. When all growers decide to harvest 10 or 20 days before the
cut-off date, there are not enough workers--a crew of 35 to 40 workers can
harvest about 15 acres a day, meaning that each worker harvests 0.3 to 0.4
acres a day.
Raisin harvester wages did increase in 1998, but generally not by as much
as the minimum wage. The strong nonfarm economy drew farm workers into nonfarm
jobs, where wages increased faster.
Growers asked for an extraordinary governmental response to labor shortages
in 1998, citing the bunching of harvests in early September 1998 due to weather
factors, the need to harvest some wine grapes by hand due to El Nino damage,
and the early bumper crop of apples in Washington state.
There is a sharp contrast between the Cassandra-like pleas of grower
organizations for more raisin harvesters and the situation in small cities
where many raisin harvesters live such as Parlier. In Parlier, where the
unemployment rate even in September ranges from 25 to 30 percent, there are no
obvious signs of employers recruiting workers. Most raisin harvesters are
recruited by farm labor contractors, and many growers define "labor shortage"
as calling a FLC and asking for three 40-person crews to begin harvesting
tomorrow, and getting only two crews, or being forced to wait for two or three
days for the crews to begin.
Several raisin growers have "retrofitted" their fields to eliminate the
need for thousands of harvest workers. There are several techniques for
reducing the peak labor demand, including retrofitting each row of grapes with
stronger and higher trellises, and adding a wire for vines to attach themselves
to the south side of rows that run east and west. The vines with bunches of
grapes are then cut by machine, the raisins dry on the vine and are then
harvested by machine.
This dried-on-the-vine system can be installed in a vineyard for about
$1,300 an acre, and growers can recoup this investment in less than five years.
However, with the average age of growers being 63 and the average size of
raisin vineyards 37 acres, there is a reluctance to invest.
Wine Business Monthly in October 1998 included several stories on labor
shortages in the winegrape industry. According to Wine Business Monthly,
entry-level general laborer wages in 1998 were $6.31 an hour, with wages rising
to an average $6.95 an hour for seasonal workers with experience.
The CFBF reported that in 1955, California farmers had 100,000 units of
farm worker housing; in 1995, they had 20,000 units. Farmers want the state to
provide tax credits to employers who build farm worker housing; many worker
advocates oppose subsidies for farmer-built housing, arguing that it: (1) eases
the employment of guest workers; and (2) gives farmers too much "control" over
workers--if they go on strike, they can lose housing. Federal and state
migrant camps have about 3,000 units of housing for migrant families.
In support of moving the administration of the Bracero program from DOL to
USDA, the California Farm Bureau Federation approved Resolution 12 at its
annual meeting on November 12, 1953: "It is imperative that a pool of
supplemental agricultural workers be available to farmers at all times, on a
simple common sense basis designed by agriculture for agriculture and not
hampered by bureaucratic regulations, uncertainties, excessive costs and not
administered by a bureau which has no knowledge or understanding of
agricultural problems." (Quoted in Jones, Lamar S. and James W. Christian.
1965. Some Observations on the Agricultural Labor Market. Industrial and
Labor Relations Review. Vol 18. No 4. July. 530.)
Other States. In Kentucky, an estimated 18,000 workers harvest
tobacco in July and August. Growers reportedly fear that INS raids would leave
them with few workers, but as the harvest got underway in August, the extension
agent in Bourbon county reported that "it looks like there's going to be enough
[labor] to go around."
In western Colorado's Mesa, Delta and Montrose counties, a record peach
crop had growers scrambling for workers in August 1998; some 15 million pounds
or 300,000 bushels of peaches and 150,000 bushels of apples were expected--20
bushels equal one bin. The Grand Valley traditionally relied on local teens to
harvest fruit; until the 1970s, some Grand Valley schools delayed opening day
until harvesting was completed. Local workers are still two-thirds of one
grower's labor force.
One grower noted that recruitment is a function of wages and working
conditions: Latino immigrants are satisfied with $6 to $7 an hour earnings on
piecerates, while local workers expect $10 an hour. Some growers have upgraded
housing for migrants, but none requested help from the local Employment Service
to recruit US workers or approve the entry of H-2A workers.
In 1997, the INS apprehended about 120 unauthorized apple pickers in
western New York. In 1998, 21 growers applied for H-2A apple harvesters; most
requested workers for eight to 10 weeks; the AEWR is $6.84 an hour. There are
1,200 to 1,500 seasonal workers employed in western New York for the apple
In FY97, the INS reported that 21,000 H-2A workers entered the US.
Abby Sawyer, "Beleaguered by labor shortages," Wine Business Monthly,
October 1998. Christine Hanley, "Labor Reports Spark Clashes," AP, September
29, 1998. Marc Lifsher, "Are Machines the Answer To Farm-Hand Shortage?" Wall
Street Journal, September 23, 1998. Dennis Pollock, "Labor shortage hits
harvests Emergency meeting is held in Fresno," Fresno Bee, September 12, 1998.
Peter Sinton, "Growers Face Worker Shortage," San Francisco Chronicle,
September 11, 1998. Guy Kelly, "Bumper peach crop catches growers facing labor
shortage," Rocky Mountain News, August 21, 1998. John Brinkley, "Report
critical of move to boost foreign guest workers," Modesto Bee, August 20, 1998.
Jane Schmucker, "Migrant shortage threatens harvest for local farmers," Toledo
Blade, July 12, 1998. Jones, Lamar S. 1967. Farm Labor: Shortage or Surplus?
Social Science Quarterly. Vol 47: 4. GAO. 1998. H-2A Guestworker Program:
Experiences of Individual Vidalia Onion Growers. GAO/HEHS-98-236R, September