Bringing In the Harvest, Orondo, Washington, September 2012

From a Seattle Times article in October 2011

Jobs aplenty Americans don’t want

It’s surreal that as some Americans rally in the streets, supposedly in part for jobs; as Congress squabbles over a jobs bill; and the presidential campaign is all jobs talk all the time, here are a thousand real jobs that we can’t get anybody to do because we’ve scared away the only people willing — migrant laborers.

A headline in The Wenatchee World newspaper this past week may have seemed vague to outsiders. But to the “apple capital of the world,” in the middle of a hectic harvest, the meaning was clear enough.

“The high cost of scaring them away,” it read.

Who is this “them”? It’s the people who used to pick the apples, but aren’t anymore.

The previous week, the governor declared that a farmworker shortage had become a crisis. The state jobs agency put out a call, with radio ads, for the able-bodied to head east to help pick the world’s largest apple crop.

Some orchards were said to be paying $100 to $150 a day.

But barely anybody has answered the call.

The state job centers and farm-labor contractors in Central and Eastern Washington say that despite the push, the number of job openings has scarcely budged.

“I don’t think anybody’s applying, even with the high unemployment rate,” says Jon Warling, who runs Marjon Labor, a company in Othello, Adams County, that provides workers to farms.

Interest is so weak that when the state put out a news release saying there are 1,000 fruit-picker openings, it highlighted that “two unemployed graduates from the University of Washington” got jobs at an orchard in Tonasket, Okanogan County.

Two? I guess it’s breaking news: Americans are willing to take farm jobs after all!

Unfortunately, the two UW grads lasted only a few days.

“It didn’t work out and they moved on,” the orchard manager said when I called.

It hardly ever works out, Warling says.

“We rarely get any non-Hispanics or Caucasians to come out here to do this work, and when they do they usually don’t make it through a week,” he said. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and I honestly don’t know what it is. I guess society has just changed.”

Pay is an obvious sticking point. Location, too. The best pickers can make $175 a day in eight or nine hours (they’re paid by volume). But one newcomer last week, lured in by TV coverage about the worker shortage, picked at a rate that would have only earned him $50 per day. The grower had to make up the difference so that the picker made minimum wage.

“If you keep at it and work hard, you can make decent pay,” he said. “Except from the migrant laborers, though, I don’t see a lot of enthusiasm for the ‘work hard’ part.”

On the other hand, one could just go work at Dick’s Drive-In and make roughly the same amount of money. With better benefits. So it doesn’t seem farms compete that hard for American workers.

Still, it’s surreal that as some Americans rally in the streets, supposedly in part for jobs, as Congress squabbles over a jobs bill and the presidential campaign is all jobs talk all the time, here are a thousand real jobs that we can’t get anybody to do.

Because we’ve scared away the only people willing.

Warling says the migrant laborers aren’t here this year in their usual numbers, due to hostility to anyone in the country illegally.

Take last week’s Republican presidential news as Exhibit A: Mitt Romney and Rick Perry almost got in a fight because Romney’s shrubs once were trimmed by an illegal immigrant. Herman Cain, the new front-runner in some states, said he wants to put an electrified fence at the border, with a sign that reads, “It will kill you.”

On the Democratic side, it was announced that the allegedly soft and squishy Obama administration just deported the most undocumented immigrants ever in a single year, nearly 400,000.

So … apple picking, anyone? As of Friday, there still were 929 job openings. As one farmer said, just drive down any highway in apple country and you’ll see the signs: “Pickers Wanted.”

Of course, what most of the signs actually say is: “Se Necesitan Piscadores.”

If we don’t calm down and just welcome immigrants to do the work we still won’t, it won’t be long before our fruit, like everything else, says “made in China.”

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086

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