Nov 18, 2011
E-Verify contributes to labor shortages across the country

Congress hadn’t passed mandatory E-Verify as of late October, but the threat that it might do so lingered over the country’s fields and orchards for much of 2011. Just the rumor of E-Verify was enough to keep many migrant farm workers from traveling, which exacerbated labor shortages across the country, according to sources.

If passed, mandatory E-Verify would require all U.S. employers to use the computerized E-Verify system to confirm their employees’ eligibility to work in the United States. That could be devastating for labor-intensive agriculture, since it is estimated that more than 70 percent of that segment’s work force is ineligible, according to the U.S. Apple Association (USApple).

That “tremendous sense of unease” is the biggest problem right now, said Denise Donohue, executive director of the Michigan Apple Committee.

Michigan’s apple growers got their crop picked this year, despite missing a few workers, but the future of their labor force seems to be up in the air, completely at the whim of the federal government – which seems to have no plan except mandatory E-Verify, Donohue said.

“It’s incredibly frustrating.”

The federal government isn’t the only problem. Nearly a dozen states have instituted E-Verify laws of their own, according to USApple.

Georgia is a noteworthy case. The state passed a mandatory E-Verify bill May 13. Four days after passage, and two years before the program was supposed to be phased in, growers began reporting labor shortages. There were 30 percent to 50 percent no-shows on harvest crews, said Charles Hall, president of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Grower’s Association (GFVGA).

GFVGA commissioned the University of Georgia to conduct a survey of state growers to determine their losses from lack of labor. The survey results, released in October, represented 31,000 acres – or about half the acreage in the state. Nearly 80 percent of the surveyed growers said they had a labor problem. The most affected crops were blueberries, blackberries, bell peppers, squash, cucumbers and watermelon, with a combined loss of $74 million. Across all crops, the loss was estimated at $140 million, or 24 percent of the farm-gate value.

The survey estimated a labor shortage of 5,200 workers – or 40 percent of what was needed. The total financial effect on respondents was estimated at $181 million; extrapolated to the entire state, the total effect was estimated at $391 million, Hall said.

Even states that didn’t pass E-Verify felt its effects. There were labor shortages in New York state, due in part to immigration raids but also to the rumored threat of E-Verify. Fears of E-Verify further south might have prevented migrant workers from driving north to New York farms, said Jeanette Marvin, executive secretary of the New York State Vegetable Growers Association.

Larry Eckhardt, a vegetable grower in eastern New York, near the Massachusetts border, hires a handful of migrant workers every season. His migrant crew didn’t show up this year. Eckhardt managed to scrape by with local people and workers borrowed from another farm, but his biggest help – labor-wise – was the terrible weather, including a hurricane and tropical storm.

“We made it through because we didn’t require as much labor – because we didn’t have as much of a crop,” he said.

If crop levels approach normal next year and there’s a similar labor shortage, that could be a real problem, Eckhardt said.

Weather wasn’t a problem on the other side of the state, near Buffalo, but like other growers near him, Mark Henry struggled to find workers. Fewer migrants showed up this year, and some area crops had to be abandoned. Thanks to a mix of local college and high school kids, Mexican and Puerto Rican workers, Henry managed to get his vegetable crops in, but it was a near thing, he said.

“There’s not a reservoir of labor like there used to be.”
Florida narrowly avoided passing its own E-Verify bill in 2011. Despite that, many growers were hearing rumors that migrant workers might not drive back south through Georgia or Alabama to get to Florida’s 2011-12 harvest – out of fear of E-Verify, said Lisa Lochridge, director of public affairs for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association.

On the other hand, the “draconian” E-Verify laws recently passed by Florida’s northern neighbors could work to the state’s advantage. Instead of leaving and traveling north from harvest to harvest, many migrant workers might just stick around, said Ted Campbell, executive director of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association.

Some work crews did not show up this fall, however, during planting season. That’s a bad sign for Florida’s strawberry harvest, which begins around Thanksgiving and goes until spring. In that period, the state’s strawberry growers need 15,000 to 16,000 workers to pick 400,000 plants a week. The workers need to be experienced, too. If immigration policies do scare off migrant labor, the industry will lose a wealth of institutional knowledge, Campbell said.

“That’s our greatest concern,” he said. “You can’t pick someone off the street and expect them to start picking strawberries.”

In late October, Washington state’s apple growers were in the midst of harvesting their third largest apple crop on record, and they were thousands of workers short. Harvest would be extended as a consequence – and a cool spring had already delayed it two weeks later than usual. As a result, growers were looking at potentially the largest November harvest ever, said Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association.

To make up for the labor shortages, some growers were prioritizing certain varieties, Mayer said.

Shortages were apparent in spring 2011, during the asparagus harvest. Asparagus is the “canary in the coalmine” when it comes to labor, because it’s the first crop harvested during the year. If asparagus growers experience labor shortages, it doesn’t bode well for later crops, said John Bakker, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board.

Michigan’s asparagus growers need about 1,400 workers during harvest, plus another few hundred for packing and processing. They ended up about 10 percent short in 2011. The workers who did show up worked harder than usual, but growers still mowed off or abandoned about a million pounds – roughly 5 percent of the state’s crop, Bakker said.

Many of the migrant workers come from Texas and Florida. The Florida contingent appeared to be especially light. Apparently, they were reluctant to travel through Alabama and Georgia, Bakker said.

California’s asparagus growers also were short of workers in 2011. It’s easy to get a skilled pool of labor when the season begins, in late February or early March, but as the season goes on and other crops start ripening, workers start to move on, said Cherie Watte Angulo, executive director of the California Asparagus Commission.

Labor was tight for California’s strawberry growers, too, said Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director for the California Strawberry Commission.

O’Donnell didn’t have numbers to quantify how bad the shortages were, but she said a general rule of thumb is that one and a half to two workers are needed to harvest an acre of strawberries in California. There were more than 37,000 acres of strawberries in the state in 2011, she said.

by Matt Milkovich, Managing Editor

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