Georgia’s Farm Labor Crisis

Filed in National by on June 22, 2011

Last week we started a discussion about illegal immigration and farm workers after I made a comment in passing about farm labor in Georgia. Just this year, Georgia passed a law similar to Arizona’s contriversial immigration law but even more restrictive. Georgia made it illegal to transport undocumented people, and a felony if you’ve transported more than 7. (You can understand why cab drivers, ambulence drivers, church groups are challenging the law in court.) If the purpose of the law was to make undocumented people feel unwelcome, it worked like a charm. It worked so well, in fact, that the nudge, nudge, wink, wink agreement that the agriculture industry had with cheap, undocumented labor fell apart.

Barely a month ago, you might recall, Gov. Nathan Deal welcomed the TV cameras into his office as he proudly signed HB 87 into law. Two weeks later, with farmers howling, a scrambling Deal ordered a hasty investigation into the impact of the law he had just signed, as if all this had come as quite a surprise to him.

As an editorial in the Valdosta Daily Times notes, “Maybe this should have been prepared for, with farmers’ input. Maybe the state should have discussed the ramifications with those directly affected. Maybe the immigration issue is not as easy as ’send them home,’ but is a far more complex one in that maybe Georgia needs them, relies on them, and cannot successfully support the state’s No. 1 economic engine without them.”

According to the survey, more than 6,300 of the unclaimed jobs pay an hourly wage of just $7.25 to $8.99, or an average of roughly $8 an hour. Over a 40-hour work week in the South Georgia sun, that’s $320 a week, before taxes, although most workers probably put in considerably longer hours. Another 3,200 jobs pay $9 to $11 an hour. And while our agriculture commissioner has been quoted as saying Georgia farms provide “$12, $13, $14, $16, $18-an-hour jobs,” the survey reported just 169 openings out of more than 11,000 that pay $16 or more.

In addition, few of the jobs include benefits — only 7.7 percent offer health insurance, and barely a third are even covered by workers compensation. And the truth is that even if all 2,000 probationers in the region agreed to work at those rates and stuck it out — a highly unlikely event, to put it mildly — it wouldn’t fix the problem.

When people say undocumented immigrants are filling jobs that Americans won’t take, it looks like they are correct. This kind of work is very, very difficult for low pay and no benefits. I certainly don’t blame Americans for not wanting to do this kind of work on a subsistence salary.

Agriculture has always relied on cheap labor. That was the purpose of slavery and its successor, sharecropping. Most of the time government has looked the other way. I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert on agriculture policy but it looks like we have the choice of either allowing more migrant workers (our uneasy status quo), some sort of legal status for migrant workers (worker VISAs, guest workers or amnesty) or to raise the pay for these jobs enough to attract more Americans and legal immigrants.

I don’t think we can go back to the old way of pretending we don’t know what’s going on. I have a hard time seeing how we will transition to a new system without raising pay, benefits and worker protection for these jobs.

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Opinionated chemist, troublemaker, blogger on national and Delaware politics.

Comments (42)

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  1. Jason330 says:

    This is what happens when wingnut bumper-sticker slogans become law. I guess the eight year example of the Bush years was not enough of an object lesson.

  2. delbert says:

    You’ll see the same labor crisis in Sussex County as soon as the chicken industry gets on its feet again. The Feds came down here and ran out the illegals from the chicken plants that had cheesy looking paperwork at the end of Bush’s second term. Obama hasn’t changed anything, and won’t. Now the poultry companies are back having to hire lazy Americans that quit after one or two paychecks, especially if they can find another job.

  3. Truth Teller says:

    If you don’t mine the pun YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW.

  4. Jason330 says:

    If people were paid according to how hard they worked, Georgia farm labor and lazy chicken processors would be paid $85.00 and hour.

    And if you can find a person who would stay with chicken processing if offered another job, you’ve found something more rare than promethium.

  5. Dana says:

    Knowing how diligently my good friends at the Delaware Liberal support unionization, I’d point out that this is, in effect, unionization.

    Unions get higher wages through the restriction of the available labor pool, lowering the supply of labor vis a vis the demand. (That’s why organized labor hates right-to-work laws; those laws take away their ability to reduce the size of the available labor supply.)

    Well, the Georgia law has reduced the size of the available labor supply for the agricultural jobs in question; that should result in increased agricultural labor wages. I’d think tat y’all would support this.

  6. Aoine says:

    OK – so Georgia had produced BOTH Newt *tiffany* Gengrich and this law – wonder where their beauty queens stand on evolution?I mean, its not like no one KNEW about the mal-effects of legislation like this…..same exodus hapen after AZ 1070 with even native born Hispanic AZ families fleeing the state – all done to get rid of the latino population that votes D

    one website that has been up for quite some time – and featured by Jon Stewart is

    http://www.takeourjobs.org

    UFW issued a challenge – American did not want those jobs-what exactly does $10bs peaches taste like?

    read it and weep, Georgia

  7. puck says:

    Here’s the problem: The GA Department of Labor lists maybe 30 farm jobs available for the entire state. The GA unemployment rate is 9.8% (around 460K people).

    If Georgia farmers need help so badly, why aren’t they listing those jobs with the state unemployment office so they can be connected with those 460K unemployed people? The farmers told their Ag Secretary they needed 11,000 people, but they didn’t share that information with the state unemployment office.

    The way I see it, the farmers are hiding these jobs in the shadows because they do not want to comply with state and federal laws regarding those jobs. If they raise prices to become legal employers, they will not be able to compete with illegal employers in neighboring states.

    From the article:

    According to the survey, more than 6,300 of the unclaimed jobs pay an hourly wage of just $7.25 to $8.99, or an average of roughly $8 an hour…In addition, few of the jobs include benefits — only 7.7 percent offer health insurance, and barely a third are even covered by workers compensation.

    Gee, no wonder they can’t hire legal workers.

    The article states “It’s hard to envision a way out of this” but then goes ahead and identifies the solution – a national law is needed:

    If they raise wages by a third to a half, which is probably what it would take, they would drive up their operating costs and put themselves at a severe price disadvantage against competitors in states without such tough immigration laws.

    It is absurd that the GA farmers’ best hope now is a court ruling that makes it easier to hire illegal workers. Why should our food economy be based on an economic underpinning of corruption and illegality?

  8. Jason330 says:

    While typically incoherent, I gather that Dana P is saying that farm workers should be unionized. Common ground at last!

  9. puck says:

    UFW issued a challenge – American did not want those jobs

    Americans do not want illegal jobs.

    America does want those jobs – in fact they used to do them – but they want them under American law in a fair and legal jobs market. Americans will do the work if it is pays legal wages and offers American legal protections.

    If the article is correct that the wages would need to go up by half to attract legal workers, that does not result in $10/lb peaches.

    what exactly does $10bs peaches taste like?

    What do your illegal peaches taste like?

    We now have liberals who won’t buy diamonds that are mined with illegally exploited labor, but who have no problem eating peaches picked by illegally exploited labor.

  10. Aoine says:

    a national healthcare system would go a long way to helping this issue of no benefits for Ag industries workers – but NOOOOOOOOO

    so what is the solution here – Oh yeah – bring back slavery – sounds good – what say you repubs

    come on Dana – dont be disingenious – you’re smarter than this:

    “Well, the Georgia law has reduced the size of the available labor supply for the agricultural jobs in question; that should result in increased agricultural labor wages. I’d think tat y’all would support this.”

    and to answer this question: “It is absurd that the GA farmers’ best hope now is a court ruling that makes it easier to hire illegal workers. Why should our food economy be based on an economic underpinning of corruption and illegality?”

    UMMMMM – its because $8 lettuce takes kinda bitter to the American consumer

  11. Aoine says:

    Really puck – really

    then why didn’t they flock to the UAW’s challenge – those are leagl jobs, paid the going rate, with what is available for benefits

    or are you trying to tell us that ALL workers the UAW represents are illegal

    I dont think you can pull that one off – think San Joaquin Valey and Caesar Chavez

  12. Aoine says:

    diamonds are not a necessity – food is

    I know a great many PATRIOTIC ‘MERICANS that dont look at the bus boy or dishwasher….

    that said – Im all for unionizing farm-workers – but all they have to do is legislate the Bracero Progam back into existance
    and all that unionizing goes out the window….

    or do we not know/forgottn what the Bracero Program was?

  13. puck says:

    then why didn’t they flock to the UAW’s challenge

    As I pointed out, these jobs aren’t listed with the unemployment office – why do you think that is?

    – those are leagl jobs, paid the going rate,

    The “going rate” (and working conditions) is artificially suppressed by the availability of and tolerance for illegal workers who will work for less. This is not a fair employment market. Free markets need the protection of law to be fair markets.

  14. puck says:

    Expanded bracero-type programs are fine with me, as long as the size of the program is adjusted annually based on the regional unemployment rates. And as long as the bracero programs do not weaken our resolve to make all jobs legal.

    Congress or the President needs to certify each year that unemployment is low enough to justify the number of bracero workers allowed. Then they can be held politically accountable.

    The point is, non-citizen workers should be allowed to work only to relieve genuine labor shortages; not to reduce wages and working conditions for the whole sector.

  15. Aoine says:

    The Bracero program was a national disgrace – poorly managed and rife with abuse

    not far above slavery and below share-cropping

    altho I agree with guest-worker programs and a more flexible amount of visa offered for them to expand and contract with the labor need – we should NEVER go back to bracero-like programs

    the two issues are not comaptable and no where near to being like each other

  16. puck says:

    The Bracero program was a national disgrace – poorly managed and rife with abuse

    Agreed. I was thinking more of an updated guest-worker program with proper protections.

  17. Aoine says:

    and I beg to differ – the UAW’s jobs ARE listed

    the UAW challenge was years before the GA law – the two are not tied together at all – plz see the below proposal from 2009

    H.R. 2414 – Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA28) & Rep. Adam Putnam (R-FL12)
    S. 1038 – U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) & U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN)

  18. Aoine says:

    seems we’re cross posting:

    missed your last – the AGjobs of 2009 is more in line with what you are saying

    increases wages – flexes visa based on OUR need and protects workers

    think we can agree on that

  19. Aoine says:

    meanwhile – back in 2011 Georgia – i see some A**holes puckering

    (no offense puck) been to the puck festival – the craic was 90!

  20. puck says:

    and I beg to differ – the UAW’s jobs ARE listed

    But not with the GA unemployment office. Which is an important distinction. Because if the jobs are listed with the unemployment office, then you take the job, or you lose your benefits. And if you don’t want to take the job because it sucks too bad, then you go to your representatives and resolve that politically. With 460K unemployed, the politicians will hear you.

    But GA farmers do not want to hire unemployed citizens, with their fancy-shmancy “rights” and family support systems in the US that give them other options and leverage in the employment relationship.

  21. aoine says:

    The UAW represents farm workerss all over the states and has for 40 yrs.
    I think we’re on two different pages here..
    But the fact remains there are thousands OS AG jobs open all over the states and u and I all all here should admit that even at a good wage and bennies many Americans will trn them down.

    I don’t like supporting the able-bodied either if a job is available.
    I’m an immigrant…I work and have worked two jobs since age 11. My immigrant parents mandated a work ethic. And an education.
    On another note here is an awesome story and link…maybe it will change some minds…
    http://mobile.nytimes.com/2011/06/26/magazine/my-life-as-an-undocumented-immigrant.xml

  22. Free Market Democrat says:

    Brookings Institute recently completed a survey of immigration (legal and undocumented) in the 100 largest metro areas in the US (http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/2011/0609_skilled_immigrants_singer.aspx). It revealed that 44 of those areas had more highly-skilled immigrants (those with a college education or higher) than lesser-skilled immigrants (those with a high school education or less). 30 metro areas attracted more less-skilled immigrants and the rest were about evenly split between higher and lesser skilled.

    The unanswered question is whether this change in the skills demographics of immigrants is due to a depressed jobs market or harsher legal and enforcement environment at both the federal and local levels. The truth is probably someplace in between the two.

  23. NosyNeighbor says:

    Puck is right on! I work in an industry and for an owner who thinks that exact way. It’s frustrating to see it play out. When a position does become available the laborers are told to find a brother, cousin, house-mate, etc. because they will work for lower pay, not get overtime until after 45 hours, aren’t offered benefits, get no paid holidays, vacation days or sick days. They make it financially beneficial to hire illegals vs. citizens.

  24. cassandra m says:

    The other thing to keep in mind for farm jobs is that they are very temporary — meaning that in order to keep the cash flowing, you have to move to where the work is. Hence migrant workers. That is very hard to entice Americans to do for any period of time.

    And I think that one of the weak spots in farm labor pay is that they essentially pay piece rates. I hear lots of folks say that workers get at minimum the legal minimum wage and can make lots more depending upon how productive they are. And piece rate pay is almost always dependent upon your employer being accurate and honest about your productivity.

  25. cassandra m says:

    An article from the AP on the thinking to make farmers use E-verify shows how screwed up our immigration policy is.

  26. aoine says:

    86,000 inquires…..11 not 11,000took jobs

    and what does that tell us?

    i dare say a little more than farmworkers need to unionize….and the wage needs to increase

  27. delbert says:

    Supply and demand. Peeps here are doing all kinds of hard work for low wage they wouldn’t have done five years ago. It aint a bad time to be the man with the cash.

  28. Jason330 says:

    The man with the cash accidentally elected a bunch of nit wits who didn’t know that racist wingnut jibber-jabbers was for getting elected, not for implementing.

  29. puck says:

    An article from the AP on the thinking to make farmers use E-verify shows how screwed up our immigration policy is.

    LOL… employers begging for more illegality, because that is all they have ever known. Here’s a comment rescue from the blog post linked in the OP:

    This is called a market adjustment. The farmers have been enjoying labor below the actual value of the labor and they’re going to have to adjust. The produce prices will increase eventually, but the problem here isn’t that the immigrants are doing labor “no American will do”, the problem is that no American’s want to do that labor for the wages being offered.

    E-verify is the right idea but I think it needs to be upgraded and made more reliable before it can be the basis for enforcement.

    And I think that one of the weak spots in farm labor pay is that they essentially pay piece rates.

    Well, NOW they do.

  30. aoine says:

    call it market adjustment, call it what you will

    you’ll be calling it bullshit when the prices goes up, whatever the causative factor(s).

    and thats a fact

    so eat cheap food and exploit forgein labor, eat cheap food and exploit domestic labor, or pay more and support union worker forgein or domestic…..
    HMMMMMM dilemma dilemma

  31. cassandra m says:

    Market adjustment is fine if you pretend that the importation of lots of food does not exist. There is a point at which (and that point is in the near term) there just isn’t much point in an American farmer being in business. Farmers are not just competing with each other and other states, but other countries that certainly ship plenty of their farm goods here.

  32. cassandra m says:

    Georgia’s cab drivers concerned that they now have to check immigration status of their passengers. Interesting. Wingnuts officially can never use the words *government overreach* again.

    And what can be more socialist than having to produce your papers for mundane stuff?

  33. One thing I like about this story is that it rips the blindfold away. People can no longer pretend that we are not relying on immigrant labor to do the most difficult and lowest-paid jobs.

    Georgia farmers may be relying on the courts to return them to the old status quo, but I doubt it will be that easy. Georgia has already proven to be hostile and the laborers have moved on to friendlier places. That’s what sucks for GA farmers. They will have to pay more for workers PLUS they will be competing against states with lower labor costs.

    This makes me think, where were the farmers when the immigration debate was raging? Did they speak up?

  34. puck says:

    Georgia’s cab drivers concerned that they now have to check immigration status of their passengers.

    The transportation thing is ridiculous and problematic, although apparently effective. A straight-up employer sanctions law would be better.

    People can no longer pretend that we are not relying on immigrant labor to do the most difficult and lowest-paid jobs.

    On illegal immigrant labor.

  35. Jason330 says:

    “…where were the farmers when the immigration debate was raging? Did they speak up?”

    Georgia farmers were in panic mode trying to keep up with the racists in Arizona. They put keeping their racist teabag street cred ahead of their businesses.

  36. skippertee says:

    Mujachos: A las armas, dejalos fritos!

  37. cassandra m says:

    Farmers weren’t too far away from the rest of the business community on immigrant labor — they definitely wanted a way to access this labor pool with minimum restrictions. Whether it was an improved H2-A program or other guest worker program, that is what they want. Michael Bloomberg and other business people are starting to rattle the cages for more H1-B visas.

    The business community (including Ag) got completely dissed by the rejection of the BushCo era immigration plan, and we know this is a constituency that is not used to being dissed. Cheap labor is what they want and they’ll import it (does not matter the work) to get it.

  38. donviti says:

    This would be an example of putting people in office that do things against your best interests

  39. puck says:

    I wonder what is happening in the non-farm employment market in Georgia. Are roofs going unroofed? Is moldy drywall going un-demolished? Are hotel beds going unmade? Are lawns going uncut? Are people watching their own children?

  40. skippertee says:

    @puck- All that will be done for less and less under BLUNT-SKULL policies.

  41. Aoine says:

    @skippertee – Hola muchacho!! como te vas??

    me encanta con su nota!! gracias corazon!

  42. skippertee says:

    @aoine-no mas cosas imposibles, sino hombres incompaces.