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No undocumented workers? Hire inmates

A Washington state apple grower resorted to prison labor to bring in the crop.

By Donna_Freedman Nov 4, 2011 10:00AM
Eastern Washington apple growers faced a serious labor shortage in recent weeks -- just as the fruit was ready to pick.

In previous years undocumented Mexican workers have showed up in droves at the groves. Where were they this year?

Anywhere but Eastern Washington. A farm-labor agency representative told The Seattle Times that the usual harvest crews didn't materialize because of hostility toward anyone in the country illegally.

Some 1,000 jobs were available but few people seemed interested. One grower was so desperate for hands that he hired 105 inmates from a minimum security work camp at the end of October.

He paid the state $22 an hour for each worker. After costs for things like housing, food and security were taken off the top, inmates were paid the state minimum wage of $8.67 per hour.

Sort of. The Wenatchee World reported that the state also subtracted money for "crime compensation, incarceration costs, child support and other bills," which left inmates earning between $1 and $2 an hour.

Washington produces more apples than any other state. Almost three of every five apples in the United States are grown here, according to Washington's agricultural information page. That's somewhere between 10 billion and 12 billion each year -- and every apple is picked by hand.

That is, when hands are available.

Sensitive to labor fluctuations
Gov. Chris Gregoire called the labor shortage "dire" in mid-October, and took a group of farmers to the other Washington (D.C.). There they urged opposition to a proposed bill requiring employers to use the E-Verify Internet-based employment system before hiring workers.

During her visit Gregoire suggested that Congress find ways to get more workers into the country to keep harvests from rotting in the fields. The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Wash., reports that Washington apples aren't the only crop affected by labor shortages:

In Alabama, where a new state law is aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants, the construction, agriculture and poultry industries all report huge shortages of labor. A University of Georgia study this year found that state had a shortage of 5,244 workers in the fields. In California, farmers have complained of too few workers to pick the avocados, and in Texas, growers have appealed with little luck for more help picking their organic crops and vegetables.

Labor is a farmer's third largest expense, according to a 2008 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Paychecks for specialty crops, including fruit, make up 30% to 40% of the farmer's annual cash expenses. This makes such growers "especially sensitive to fluctuations in the cost and availability of labor."

Estimates vary, but Washington newspapers report that anywhere from 72% to 79% of seasonal fruit pickers are in the country illegally. Post continues below.

A disaster for anyone who eats?
On her website, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., calls for immigration reform, saying the current system is "broken." "Fixing our immigration policies is critical for communities and industries in Washington state and across our nation," she writes.

Over the past few years Murray has called for a guest worker program with a path to citizenship.

In a Wenatchee World column called "The high cost of scaring them away," editorial page director Tracy Warner said he's not surprised that unemployed Washingtonians aren't lining up for orchard jobs. "Fruit harvesting is physically difficult and requires a great deal of learned skills to … earn decent money," Warner wrote.

Pickers are normally paid by volume rather than by the hour. An experienced worker can earn $150 to $175 a day, but a newcomer will make as little as $50.

Like Gregoire, Warner was critical of the proposed E-Verify bill.

"Cutting off access to immigrant labor would be a disaster for anyone who works and eats," he wrote. "Cut off their labor, you eliminate their income and their product that pumps wealth through the economy, creates jobs and fills stomachs. Why is that good?"

On Nov. 2, the World reported that the critical labor shortage had passed. The early varieties are all in, and later-ripening apples such as Fuji and Granny Smith tend to be grown in smaller orchards that can be harvested quickly.

No one seems to know whether the previous picker panic will result in higher prices.

More on MSN Money

Nov 4, 2011 10:40AM
I picked cucumbers for a large farm during summers when I was in high school and college.  It was hard work and didn't pay particularly well, but it helped with college expenses and gave me lots of exercise.  So why is it so hard to find legal citizens to pick apples?  Is it really because Americans don't want those jobs, or because farmers want only experienced workers?
Nov 4, 2011 11:48AM

Lets just get right to the down and dirty. The hispanics are here illegally here therefore they will not complain about such a small amount of pay and for the most part crappy housing. The farmers want to spend as little money as possible on labor which..duh...makes sense. Hiring college students would be a fantastic idea!!!! But they are white and legal so God forbid they get hired. My family owns very large apple and cherry orchards in washington as well as one of the higher producing packing sheds, sad truth...they wont even hire me for the summer!!! They said they would have to pay me more and if they did that it wasnt fair to the other workers. AND IM FAMILY!!!! I was told they didnt trust the workers not to mess with me bc im white and farmers lets pick some fantastic workers. Deal with the cost of hiring citizens!!! Help OUR economy! Put food in OUR mouths!!!! Help US support our families!!!! And "have to" its not hard to find legal citizens to work for the orchards, hell there are thousands of college students that are looking for jobs in the summer. We just have to get our government to pull their heads out and quite worrying about this: equality crap (its not equal!) and realize were going nowhere in this country being a haven for illegals. FYI: check out how much our college students loans are now...think they dont want a summer job to pay off that bill?


Nov 5, 2011 10:33AM
Pass a law requiring those receiving welfare must do work needed by the state or government whether it be picking apples, cleaning along roads, cleaning up the inner cities and National parks, and whatever else that can be thought of that is needed. If you are going to force the illegal aliens out, then use not only the inmates but those that are living off the rest of us without do a darn thing. The ones that are medically unable to do manual labors can answer the phones, stuff envelopes, file, etc. Maybe they can start creating solar panel and wind farms. I'm sure the offset in initial costs by selling the energy back may actually help the government and nation.

I.E. The New Deal Programs remember Roosevelt?
CCC - Civilian Conservation Corps
HOLC - Home Owner's Loan Corporation
PWA - Public Works Administration
TVA - Tennessee Valley Authority
WPA - Works Progress Administration

Nov 4, 2011 5:00PM
Fixing the immigration problem is crucial to solving the problem with apple pickers (or other produce pickers)? Sounds to me like they already have the solution and a good one at that: using inmates who are otherwise unproductive individuals. I've often thought that prisoners should be put to work, so they can contribute to the world and their families, instead of leaving us working folk to pay for their food, shelter and children. Scaring away the illegals is already working wonders by teaching our prisoners the value of a worth ethic - something those of us not in jail already have. Guess what? We're also keeping that money in OUR economy, instead of sending it to Mexico or other Latin American countries.
Nov 5, 2011 2:06PM
I would like to see more nonviolent offenders working like this.

Nov 5, 2011 2:09PM
WELFARE ENDED IN 1993! As far as welfare folks -- There is no such thing. It's just the jilted women receiving $550 a month for five years max with health insurance for the kids, school lunch reductions and food stamps. Some families will not house their adult children either. These are women who will be forced into $7.25 an hour jobs with no additional training offered when 'welfare' ends. They still have their hands out working as the state provides day care plus all other needs.

The disabled persons are getting so little money they only get transport to doctor appointments. They can barely keep a roof over their heads are just getting $10 in food stamps maybe and have the pay $140 for 80/20 medicare insurance and rx with huge co-pays.

The real problem is the breakdown of the family unit as some 'adults' have no clear concept of what is expected of them or how to achieve it. They were either raised by the former welfare class or their parents had substance abuse issues. Adults take care of their responsibilities (children), they work outside the home, they honor their word to spouses and on debts , they obey the laws and they maintain their residence in a sanitary and weather tight manner. Work hard, save some and play too.

So many of the kids who just reached 18 are so full of entitlements from being coddled as kids they think they are going to step into a lifestyle like their parents provided immediately. This country needs a serious reality check. Religious leaders and educators can step forward to correct these problems.

No more men complaining about having no clue what their role is any longer. Let's concentrate on creating adults. Men and women now have the same expectations of them. 
Dec 14, 2011 12:58AM
I'll pick apples if they pay me $22.00 an hour!  Don't tell me that's what they paid the illegals... 
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