Despite Economy, Americans Don’t Want Farm Work

Garance Burke, WTOP-FM (Washington, D.C.), September 27, 2010

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Government data analyzed by The Associated Press show most Americans simply don’t apply to harvest fruits and vegetables. And the few Americans who do usually don’t stay in the fields.

“It’s just not something that most Americans are going to pack up their bags and move here to do,” said farmer Steve Fortin, who pays $10.25 an hour to foreign workers to trim strawberry plants at his nursery near the Nevada border.

The AP analysis showed that, from January to June, California farmers posted ads for 1,160 farmworker positions open to U.S. citizens and legal residents. But only 233 people in those categories applied after learning of the jobs through unemployment offices in California, Texas, Nevada and Arizona.

One grower brought on 36. No one else hired any.

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Sometimes, U.S. workers also will turn down the jobs because they don’t want their unemployment insurance claims to be affected, or because farm labor positions do not begin for several months, and applicants prefer to be hired immediately, Ruelas said.

Fortin spent $3,000 this year to make sure that domestic workers have first dibs on his jobs in the sparsely populated stretch of the state, advertising in newspapers and on an electronic job registry.

But he did not get any takers, even though he followed the requirements of a little-known, little-used program to bring in foreign farmworkers the legal way–by applying for guest worker visas.

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The majority of farmers rely on illegal labor to harvest their crops, but they can also use the little-known H-2A visa to hire guest workers, as long as they request the workers months in advance of the harvest season and can show that no Americans want the job.

Of the estimated 40,900 full-time farmers and ranchers in California, just 34, including Fortin, petitioned to bring in foreign farmworkers on the visas, according to government data for the first eight months of the year.

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More than half of farmworkers in the United States are illegal immigrants, the Labor Department says. Proponents of tougher immigration laws–as well as the United Farm Workers of America–say farmers are used to a cheap, largely undocumented work force, and if growers raised wages and improved working conditions, the jobs would attract Americans.

So far, an effort by the UFW to get Americans to take farm jobs has been more effective in attracting applicants than the official channels.

The UFW in June launched the “Take Our Jobs Campaign,” inviting people to go online and apply. About 8,600 people filled out an application form, but only seven have been placed in farm jobs, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez said.

Some U.S. workers referred for jobs at Fortin’s nursery couldn’t do the grueling work.

“A few years ago when domestic workers were referred here, we saw absentee problems, and we had people asking for time off after they had just started,” he said. “Some were actually planting the plants upside down.”

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