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Immigration law already hitting Georgia farmers

Shortage of migrant workers to pick crops may be costly

POSTED: June 26, 2011 1:26 a.m.

It takes almost 80,000 workers to harvest Georgia's crops, according to the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Grower's Association.

A number of these workers are migrants or immigrants, coming from other states or countries to work the fields for a season or two.

But when Georgia House Bill 87, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011, goes into effect Friday, farmers might be hard-pressed to find workers.

"What we began hearing in mid- to late May was many of our migrant workers, they were not coming to Georgia," said Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Grower's Association. "Farmers are short on harvest labor 30 to 50 percent. You don't have a whole lot of window — that crop has to come out or it'll spoil."

HB 87 mandates employers and police check the immigration status of employees and criminal suspects. The bill also makes it a state crime to knowingly transport or house undocumented immigrants and it limits the types of identification documents people can use.

The federal government is not left out of HB 87. The provision regarding employers verifying employees' immigration status involves a federal online database called E-Verify.

"By law, the system cannot be used to screen potential employees. The employer must initiate the E-Verify inquiry no later than three business days after the employee begins work for pay," Georgia Poultry Federation President Mike Giles said in an email to The Times.

E-Verify is free to use and until now is a voluntary program. Mandatory E-Verify use will be phased in over the next 2« years in Georgia, Hall said.

However, there could be costs involved for farmers.

"Many of our farmers don't have a human resources department ... there might be personnel costs and loss of productivity," he said. "You have the person first, then you E-Verify. It's a three-week period. If you fire an employee (before the period is over) you could get a discrimination suit. It's not a good situation."

Giles said all Georgia poultry producers already use E-Verify, so HB 87 will not affect the hiring practices in the industry.

Even legal workers are concerned with HB 87.

"I heard people talk about some of these legal guys are going to leave the state, and I didn't really believe that. But that's happening now," said Drew Echols, farm manager at Jaemor Farms in Alto. "Folks are scared to death. It's hard to get this community to understand what this law does."

Echols said in previous years at Jaemor, at least four or five Hispanic workers would show up looking for work. In the past two months, he's had none.

"It's hard to find white folks to do these jobs. Nobody realizes it," he said. "For these guys picking peaches across the state of Georgia, that's their career. They do good work and you can't find that quality of work anywhere else."

Brian Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, said there are plenty of agricultural jobs open in Georgia, many paying above minimum wage. But it's just as much the type of labor required of farm employees as it is the pay that discourages applicants.

"The reason everything is hand-harvested is everyone wants a blemish-free fruit and vegetable," Hall said.

Potential solutions for the farm labor shortage included having criminal offenders pick the crops, a plan many farmers dismiss as ineffective.

"The plan to put probationers on farms ain't gonna work," Echols said. "I want to be a farmer; I don't want to be a warden."

Echols said even though he is against illegal immigration, HB 87 is bad for business. At Atlanta farmers markets where he buys and sells produce, he has noticed fewer Georgia Grown products on the shelves, and farmers are offered slightly more for their products.

"Fruits and vegetables in Georgia were worth $1.1 billion. We could see a $200 (million) to $250 million loss, potentially," Hall said. "The consumer may or may not see a difference in price."

Labor shortage aside, Echols said his main concern with HB 87 is the state is making illegal immigration an employer problem.

"This is a federal problem," he said. "Georgia can't police illegal immigration if the government doesn't shut the border down."

If something doesn't happen soon, Georgia's crops could suffer even more than they already have. Some fields of less valuable crops were abandoned in the southern region of the state because there wasn't enough labor to harvest it, Hall said, leading to concern about the economics of supply and demand.

"Ultimately it all goes back to the consumer," Echols said. "People are only going to pay so much for a chicken sandwich at Chick-fil-A or a basket of peaches."



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