Feb 15, 2008
Labor Outlook is Uncertain as Usual This Time of Year

Whenever Howard Rosenberg, a Cooperative Extension specialist with the University of California (UC), Berkeley, gives a talk about the agricultural labor outlook in his state, he brings an old bowling ball with him.

He tells his audience to peer into the “crystal ball.” The problem is, they can’t see through the ball. It’s dense, black and unknowable – just like the labor outlook this time of year. Nobody really knows, but there’s plenty of speculation.

The potential for a labor shortage has been growing every year, but California farmers have known about that for a decade. The media just recently picked up on it, he said.

Despite all that, there probably won’t be a general labor shortage this year, Rosenberg said. The biggest uncertainty will be the status of the workers who do show up. Will they be authorized or unauthorized? Legal or illegal? H-2A or something else?

Gregory Billikopf, a UC labor management farm adviser, surveyed 34 foremen in late January. Thirty-two of the 34 had noticed a decrease in the number of workers in the last three to five years, he said.

On the other hand, the construction and housing industries – which normally compete for Hispanic labor – are in a down period, leaving many people out of work or feeling a lot less secure about their jobs. Billikopf knows plenty of people who are out of work and need a job. Agriculture could fill that role nicely.

Another issue that could affect the labor supply on the West Coast is migration. Hispanics are moving away from their traditional states, such as California, Texas, Arizona, Nevada and Washington, and moving farther east to states they’ve never lived in before – and they’re doing it in large numbers. For example, in the year 2000, 4 percent of the dairy workers in Northeast states were foreign-born, compared to 44 percent just six years later, according to Billikopf.

Canada also is making inroads to attract Mexican workers, he said. All that movement diminishes the labor pool on the West Coast.

Hispanic workers may be moving east, but New York grower Chris Pawelski feels like he’s pretty far down the migrant stream. His Goshen, N.Y., onion and squash farm uses mainly Hispanic workers – most of them from Mexico, but some from Honduras and Guatemala. Farms in the area need workers for six months or more. Many of his employees work for other farms in the off-season and don’t leave the area, he said.

It was too early to tell in late January if there would be a labor shortage in the area, but based on the trends of the last few years, it didn’t look good, Pawelski said.

The more the U.S. government tightens the borders, the fewer workers show up for Pawelski and other growers in his region. Also, New York farms are facing an increased number of federal raids. It only takes one immigration raid, at a critical period such as planting or harvesting, to put a farm out of business, he said.

The federal government has to fix the fundamental flaws in the H-2A guest-worker program. That’s the true immigration reform that can fix the problem of labor shortages, Pawelski said.

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