Most Georgia growers do not provide housing for laborer families, do require previous experience before hiring, pay employees weekly and do not use labor contractors to find workers. Those are among the results of a recent study conducted by the Georgia Department of Labor in the wake of a spring 2011 labor shortage that left crops rotting in the fields and cost the state a half-billion dollars in direct and indirect losses.
After the 2011 debacle, hoping to better understand the way farm labor works, the state commissioned a series of studies with the idea of providing actionable information that might benefit growers in Georgiaand elsewhere. The goal was to find ways to make the current system less cumbersome and perhaps discover new approaches to untangling the farm labor knot.
The results of the labor department's Prevailing Practice for Farm Workers & Laborers Survey were released June 15. The survey was intended to provide information regarding the hiring practices of fruit and vegetable farmers who employ seasonal workers.
One of its primary goals, according to Charles Hall of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, was to make it easier for Georgia growers to utilize the federal H-2A visa system.
Since the U.S. Department of Labor considers farm workers unskilled and in need of no prior experience to go to work, any grower requesting H-2A laborers must first make those jobs available to domestic workers. While few Americans ever take those positions, that has not stopped unemployment offices in Georgia from sending referrals to farms. Applicants must be interviewed and, if qualified, offered a job. Many times, those jobs are refused. Even more often they are accepted, "and then the workers either don't show up or they go to lunch the first day and never come back," Mr. Hall said.
Meanwhile, growers have to deal with dozens and sometimes hundreds of referrals from the labor department. One south Georgia vegetable grower saw 1,100 referrals last year. A Georgia peach grower saw 500 referrals in the first few months of this year and had to hire a full-time employee simply to handle the flood. After complying with the state bureaucracy, neither of those operations has a single one of those 1,600 referrals on its employment rolls, Mr. Hall said.
The reason for the red tape is the U.S. Department of Labor's position that farmworkers do not need experience or skill to perform their tasks. The Georgia labor survey was intended in part to refute that stance -- and it did.
The state labor department anonymously surveyed 1,500 Georgia growers and received valid, vetted responses from 226 farming operations collectively employing more than 10,000 seasonal workers.
Responses were not broken down into percentages, but instead they were grouped into majority positions. The survey addressed all aspects of hiring and labor practices. Growers were asked whether the practices included in the survey were "not normal," "normal" or "prevailing" in their operations.
Significant results from the study show that provision of family housing for laborers is not a prevailing practice; a majority of growers pay workers weekly; most do not use farm-labor contractors as a source to secure workers; most growers provide workers with tools, supplies and equipment; few require drug testing; and almost all (88 percent) require previous farm experience prior to employment.
So were there any surprises?
"Only about 10 or 11 percent of farm employers are using pre-employment drug testing," Mr. Hall said. "That was surprisingly low, I was expecting it to be a little higher than that. And I thought there would have been a higher percentage of growers using farm-labor contractors, but the percentage was not high enough for that to be considered a prevailing practice."
The survey results on the experience issue, however, were not surprising.
"Whether it's two weeks, four weeks, two months, most growers require some prior pre-employment farm experience," Mr. Hall said. "What this [survey] means to our H-2A employers is they can now [prove] that experience is required. The H-2A employees have to meet the same experience standard of course, but what this will do is make the H-2A program a little more attractive to some growers. This may be one barrier we've taken down; they won't have to go through the hassle of the referrals."
Mr. Hall said the numbers would help GFVGA establish an accurate baseline of employment practices at Georgia farms, but that the results have relevance outside the state as a starting point for other organizations seeking similar information.
"If [other states'] H-2A employers are running into a problem with the experience issue, then this survey shows there may be a means through your state department of labor that could provide the information back to the U.S. Department of Labor that may help you in that direction," Mr. Hall said.
The labor department "did a great job of conducting thorough, unbiased and comprehensive research that accurately reflected wage and labor practices among the fruit and vegetable industry in Georgia," Mr. Hall said. And "there should be no question as to the validity and fairness of the survey because it was conducted by the Georgia Department of Labor."
In a press release, GFVGA President Dick Minor commended Georgia Commissioner of Labor Mark Butler for "making this a priority within his department. He and his department listened to us and responded. This was no small task, and we want to express our gratitude for the time and effort from the Commissioner and the GDOL staff to produce this survey and conduct research that was both unbiased and an accurate depiction of the atmosphere and production practices of our fruit and vegetable producers."