Government wage law penalizes vegetable growers

It used to be that planting a crop, tending it throughout the growing season and harvesting it were the primary considerations in a successful farming operation. Now, another factor — finding a reliable and affordable workforce — has become paramount for some Southeastern farmers, especially those who grow fruits and vegetables.

And, even if you win half of the battle — finding people who are willing to do the work — there's still the issue of being able to pay them what the government dictates. The second part of this equation is becoming increasingly difficult for Southern growers.

Southern fruit and vegetable producers rightly contend that a formula which determines the lowest wage they're allowed to pay foreign workers is pricing them out of a reliable workforce and punishing farmers who try to follow the rules.

It's a familiar complaint for the U.S. Department of Labor, which for years has heard demands from farmers across the nation that the law be changed. Farmers in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, to name a few, say the diversity of their crop types and farm sizes, along with a shortage of willing domestic workers, give them a particular gripe.

According to the formula, agricultural workers living in the United States must be paid the highest of three options: the U.S. minimum wage, a job-specific wage average conducted by the Labor Department or a USDA estimate that lumps together virtually all field and livestock jobs.

The USDA level was never designed to set pay levels, say farmers, because it incorporates some better paying jobs such as driving a tractor — a task seldom given to foreign visa holders. Therefore, the pay levels at small farms in the South are inflated in part by rates at larger, more technologically advanced farms nearby.

Under the formula, this year's minimum wage for foreign workers in the three-state cluster of Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina is $7.49, far higher than the $5.15 federal minimum wage — and it's expected to go up next year. Employers also must supply housing and transportation to workers who use the visa.

Many farmers are left with two choices — they can either pay the visa wages and get reliable foreign workers, or they can advertise for domestic workers and end up with illegal immigrants. Domestic workers usually aren't willing to pick peaches eight hours a day, six days a week, in 90-degree temperatures.

Many in the South opt for hiring illegal immigrants, even though one crackdown by immigration officials could eliminate a farm's entire workforce for months. There's less of a deterrence against breaking the rules in California or Texas, say Southern farmers, because with far more immigrants there than in the Southeast, a new group of workers is always ready to replace the old group.

The debate over foreign wage rates is beginning to stir some interest in Congress, although it's not clear whether lawmakers would be willing to rewrite the formula — a right it has always granted to the Labor Department.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee's panel on immigration and border security, said through a spokesman that the agricultural worker visa program is in “desperate need of reform.” He didn't indicate what reforms are needed.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, says there are no easy answers. “The law is weird and odd, but its goal is to try to create an incentive to hire American workers. I don't think it's working very well, frankly, but I believe the answer is not wholesale increases in foreign workers.”

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