February 2, 2015
As seen in:
The Orange County Register
Every summer, Ben Drake scrambles to find enough workers to pick wine grapes in his fields outside Temecula.
He worries that President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration, which will allow potentially millions of undocumented immigrants access to three-year work permits, could make it even more difficult.
“I can provide good wages for three months during the harvest,” Drake said of migrant workers. “But I don’t have work for them year-round.”
Like other growers, Drake believes some of his migrant employees may abandon farm work for more stable employment.
About 4 million people are expected to be eligible for the executive action, according to estimates from the Migration Policy Institute. The main beneficiaries are the parents of U.S. citizens and the parents of legal residents who can prove they have lived in the United States for at least five years.
The executive action will protect recipients from deportation and allow them to work legally in the United States.
“Legal status tends to help workers get better jobs,” said Todd Sorensen, an expert on the economic effects of immigration and until recently an assistant professor of economics at UC Riverside. “Agricultural jobs are not the better jobs, so I would expect people who are undocumented would move out of agricultural.”
Other jobs that typically pay low wages – such as food-service work – also may lose some immigrant workers, said Sorensen, who is now at the University of Nevada.
Without work permits, many undocumented immigrants avoid switching jobs because of the risks of working illegally, he said.
HALF OF FARMWORKERS UNDOCUMENTED
About half of U.S. agricultural workers are not authorized to work in the United States, according to U.S. Department of Labor estimates.
Drake said he checks the identification documents that his workers present him and hires them if the documents appear to be legitimate. But he acknowledged that the government has in the past notified him of workers who had Social Security numbers that did not match up with their names, indicating they were in the country illegally. He said he dismissed those workers.
Drake, 65, grows grapes and avocados on 1,150 acres near Temecula. Every July, he gets nervous about finding the 12 to 14 temporary workers he needs for the grape harvest, in addition to about a dozen employees who work year-round in the vineyards.
He typically pays from $9.75 to $10.50 an hour for pruning and other off-season work. But during harvests, he said he pays an average of $14 to $16 an hour – well above the $10.80 average farmworker wage that the Department of Labor found in 2012.
But that can’t compete with a year-round job, including positions in construction, which often pay more, he said.
“I had two guys who just left me and then went to work in construction,” Drake said.
During Riverside County’s torrid growth in the early and mid-2000s, when seas of new homes seemingly went up overnight, many farmworkers left the fields for construction sites, said Steve Pastor, executive director of the Riverside County Farm Bureau.
“During the boom years of construction, it was awfully hard to find workers,” he said.
That was without a presidential executive action that allows many undocumented immigrants to legally work in the United States.
As the Inland region’s economy recovers and developers again build new homes, demand for construction workers is rising. Inland employers in a range of other industries also are hiring again, as reflected by an unemployment rate that has fallen from a peak of 15 percent in July 2010 to 8 percent in November 2014. The new permits that allow undocumented immigrants to work legally may make non-agricultural jobs even more tempting for farmworkers than in the past, Pastor said.
“We do think that more workers will leave migrant labor for more stable jobs,” Pastor said.
That worries anti-illegal-immigration activists such as Joe Guzzardi, spokesman for Californians for Population Stabilization.
He predicted that the influx of so many new people into the legal work market will make it more difficult for unemployed U.S. citizens and legal residents to find jobs.
It also will undercut earnings for low-wage workers, he said. For example, an employer may reduce wages from $12 an hour to $10, knowing that someone in the country illegally earning $9 an hour would view it as a step up. Meanwhile, citizens could be forced to accept the lower wage because of the increased competition, he said.
NUMBER OF APPLICANTS UNKNOWN
It’s unknown how many immigrants will apply for protection from deportation. About a third of those potentially eligible under a more limited 2012 executive action never applied for the program.
That executive action has granted deportation relief and work permits to more than 600,000 young undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children.
It’s also unclear when undocumented immigrants covered under the new executive action will start receiving work permits. The government doesn’t expect to begin accepting applications for the bulk of those covered under the new program until May, although the estimated 300,000 immigrants included in an expansion of the 2012 executive action may be able to apply later this month. Conducting a background check for each applicant and verifying residency could take months, meaning the effect on this year’s labor market – and agricultural harvests – is uncertain.
But the eventual result may be a labor shortage that could devastate some farmers, growers say.
Drake said if a labor shortage is severe enough, he could be forced to either cut back on the number of acres he farms – some of the farming he does is on contract for wineries – or go out of business.
Some previous shortages have led to crops rotting in the fields, said Ken Barbic, senior director of federal government affairs for the Western Growers Association, which represents fruit and vegetable farmers in California and Arizona.
Crops in Georgia and Alabama went unpicked a few years ago after the states enacted strict anti-illegal-immigration laws, and pears rotted in California in the mid-2000s amid a labor shortage, news reports at the time said.
“In agriculture, if you don’t get the labor you need at harvest, it means all the investment you made is lost,” Barbic said.
The number of farmworkers in California already has been steadily declining for years, in part because of stricter border enforcement, he said.
Guzzardi is skeptical of growers’ claims of labor shortages. But, he said, if growers want to attract more U.S.-born workers, they should pay them more.
Barbic said U.S. growers have a limit to what they can pay because of competition from countries where farmworkers earn much less than in the United States.
And Pastor said more money won’t lure many more U.S. citizens to the fields.
“Agriculture is a very difficult job to do,” he said. “You work long hours. You’re out in the elements. My experience from my farming days is a lot of people don’t want to do that job. They say, ‘I can make that money working at a computer in an office.’ “
Obama’s executive action will grant work permits for only three years at a time, and a future president could nix the program.
Pastor and Barbic said growers need more long-term certainty. They said an overhaul of the immigration system that allows growers to legally hire the workers they require is necessary.
“We need something that guarantees we’ll have our crops picked,” Pastor said. “When you have a crop ready to be harvested, it can’t wait for people in Washington messing around with immigration reform.”
As growers worry about potential labor shortages, immigrant-rights activists are celebrating the increased opportunities the executive action offers undocumented immigrants.
The work permits will open up skilled jobs to many immigrants who previously had been shut out of them, said Luz Gallegos, community programs director of TODEC Legal Center in Perris.
She expects many immigrants to come to organizations such as hers for computer training and other vocational assistance.
Other immigrants already have the skills needed for better jobs, she said.
After the 2012 executive action, many beneficiaries moved from low-wage jobs to better-paying, higher-skilled positions, Gallegos said.
She expects the same to occur with the new executive action, as undocumented immigrants who were engineers, attorneys or other professionals in their home countries – or received college degrees in the United States – and were forced to work in low-wage jobs will be able to look for jobs in their fields.
“Right now they’re working for whoever will hire them and doesn’t ask for documents,” she said. “They have to settle for less.”
The executive action also will make immigrants more comfortable with reporting wage theft, below-minimum-wage pay and violations of overtime regulations, Gallegos said. Even though state and federal labor laws on such matters apply to undocumented workers, many of them are afraid to contact government agencies for fear it would lead to deportation, she said.
“With the new work permit, they’ll feel more comfortable coming forward,” Gallegos said.