Farmers Finding Few Americans Willing To Do Jobs Immigrants Do
The unemployment rate is above 9% and some people have been out of work for more than a year, but one segment of the economy is finding that there are indeed jobs Americans won’t do:
OLATHE, Colo. — How can there be a labor shortage when nearly one out of every 11 people in the nation are unemployed?
That’s the question John Harold asked himself last winter when he was trying to figure out how much help he would need to harvest the corn and onions on his 1,000-acre farm here in western Colorado.
The simple-sounding plan that resulted — hire more local people and fewer foreign workers — left Mr. Harold and others who took a similar path adrift in a predicament worthy of Kafka.
The more they tried to do something concrete to address immigration and joblessness, the worse off they found themselves.
“It’s absolutely true that people who have played by the rules are having the toughest time of all,” said Senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado.
Mr. Harold, a 71-year-old Vietnam War veteran who drifted here in the late ’60s, has participated for about a decade in a federal program called H-2A that allows seasonal foreign workers into the country to make up the gap where willing and able American workers are few in number. He typically has brought in about 90 people from Mexico each year from July through October.
This year, though, with tough times lingering and a big jump in the minimum wage under the program, to nearly $10.50 an hour, Mr. Harold brought in only two-thirds of his usual contingent. The other positions, he figured, would be snapped up by jobless local residents wanting some extra summer cash.
“It didn’t take me six hours to realize I’d made a heck of a mistake,” Mr. Harold said, standing in his onion field on a recent afternoon as a crew of workers from Mexico cut the tops off yellow onions and bagged them.
Six hours was enough, between the 6 a.m. start time and noon lunch break, for the first wave of local workers to quit. Some simply never came back and gave no reason. Twenty-five of them said specifically, according to farm records, that the work was too hard. On the Harold farm, pickers walk the rows alongside a huge harvest vehicle called a mule train, plucking ears of corn and handing them up to workers on the mule who box them and lift the crates, each weighing 45 to 50 pounds.
“It is not an easy job,” said Kerry Mattics, 49, another H-2A farmer here in Olathe, who brought in only a third of his usual Mexican crew of 12 workers for his 50-acre fruit and vegetable farm, then struggled to make it through the season. “It’s outside, so if it’s wet, you’re wet, and if it’s hot you’re hot,” he said.
Still, Mr. Mattics said, he can’t help feeling that people have gotten soft.
“They wanted that $10.50 an hour without doing very much,” he said. “I know people with college degrees, working for the school system and only making 11 bucks.”
This isn’t entirely surprising, of course. We saw the same thing in operation in Georgia earlier this year when a new law aimed at illegal immigrants caused migrant farm workers to flee the state, leaving farmers with crops rotting in the field. When those farmers tried to make alternative arrangements and hire locally, they found very few people willing to do the work, and even fewer who could do the job as quickly and efficiently as the illegal immigrants who used to do it. A similar law enacted in Alabama was seen to have a similar impact on the construction industry.
Immigrants, regardless of their legal status, are uniquely suited for this type of work for many reasons. Farming requires quick action with harvest time comes; crops need to be picked when they’re ready to be picked. Farmers simply can’t afford to wait for apply for a pickers job when they’re not even sure they’ll keep up with it. Migrant workers exist because there’s a market for them. They don’t stay in one place very long (hence the migrant part) because once they’re done picking in one place, they move on to another. That’s why its the kind of job that attracts undocumented immigrants, because most of them don’t have fixed addresses to begin with so the idea of spending the summer traveling the country doesn’t bother them as much as it would the average American worker.
Immigration opponents constantly repeat the refrain that immigrants take jobs away from Americans. In reality, most immigrants are doing jobs that Americans don’t want to do, or that they’d only for for an exorbinantly high rate of pay that would make the price of ordinary goods prohibitively high, thus harming American competitiveness. Today, they’re the people doing things like picking crops in the field or framing houses. A hundred years ago they were mining coal and digging railroad tunnels. They’re willing to do the work because they’re willing to sacrifice to make a better life for themselves and their families. If they were really stealing jobs from Americans, then we’d see some evidence of it. Instead, we get farmers like Mr. Mattics who took a gamble on the idea that out-of-work Americans would be grateful for a chance to work, and lost.