California farmer associations are urging U.S. lawmakers to respond to a labor shortage in the state that they feel is brought on by a confluence of factors — including heightened border enforcement, a changing economy and government regulation. The shortage, they say, is threatening the state's multibillion-dollar agricultural industry.

Though the exact meaning of “labor shortage” is itself the subject of debate, the University of California, through UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE), is a source of information and support as growers tread the shifting sands of agricultural labor availability.

UCCE county- and campus-based programs offer help on public policy as well as business management issues pertaining to farm labor, such as understanding and keeping up with employment law, creating management policies that comply with regulations and make sense to workers, selecting and developing capable employees, and structuring a pay system to help recruit, retain and elicit good performance from them.

Illegal entry interceptions and other Border Patrol enforcement actions have probably reduced the number of people looking to work in the fields, according to UCCE farm-labor management specialist Howard Rosenberg. Better earnings and conditions of employment offered in some non-agricultural work, such as construction, also draw people away from the lower tier farm jobs.

Farmers worried

The changes have farmers worried. Joe Santellano of Sunnyside Packing in Selma, which also has farming operations in Fresno County, said, “2006 is our biggest concern.”

“They're not letting people across the border. It's a real serious problem,” Santellano said. “What's the use of planting stuff if we can't get it harvested?”

UC Davis agricultural economist Dan Sumner, the director of the UC Agricultural Issues Center, said anytime there is upward pressure on wages, employers talk about a worker shortage.

“In the short run, say a few weeks or months, there is likely to be only a finite number of people who know how to prune grape vines, for example,” Sumner said. “So even if the wage went up a bit, not many more people would be available and qualified. Given more time or some advanced information that substantially higher wages would be available, many more people would be available and the shortage would disappear at the higher wage. But, currently, there has not been time for the wage to rise sufficiently and no one knows if the market will remain tight long enough for the wages to adjust.”

Some workers prefer jobs in processing plants to those in the fields, and former and potential farm workers across the country have found more opportunities, often with greater stability or preferable work conditions, in other industries. For example, in the Fresno area, nonagricultural employers are reported to be recruiting for jobs with wages ranging from $11 to $16 an hour, compared to the $6.75 state minimum wage paid in many entry-level jobs on the farm, according to Rosenberg.

Employer adjustments

Agricultural employers are finding that they have to consider adjustments. “The human resource manager of a large company that workers consider to be an ‘employer of choice’ recently told me that even he had stepped up recruitment advertising and sweetened the pay package,” Rosenberg said.

One useful reference for agricultural employers is an annual wage and benefit survey on which UC now collaborates with the Farm Employers Labor Service and several grower associations. A quarterly USDA survey of farm employment and wages only distinguishes job content as “field” or “livestock” in the state as a whole. In contrast, the California survey tracks wages and benefits for 14 specific agricultural jobs, within regional, commodity, and business-size groups.

“It's no surprise that surveys like this have long been part of the stock in trade of human resource management,” said Rosenberg. “It's tough to position your pay relative to the market if you don't have comparative information.”

Results of the grower survey are reported more than three months after data collection, but even as retrospective benchmarks they are useful to employers assessing the external and internal equity of their own pay scales. Survey results for 2004 are online at http://apmp.berkeley.edu/APMP/pubs/wagesurvey04.sum.html, and the 2005 summary will be posted soon.

The UC Agricultural Personnel Management Program Web site — http://apmp.berkeley.edu — provides access to myriad agricultural labor resources, including frequently updated information on the flurry of bills in Congress that could either ease or exacerbate the current agricultural labor situation. It also provides information on UC experts who are gearing up to help employers as well as workers decipher the opportunities and requirements presented by legislation as it is enacted, as they did with a major immigration reform bill in 1986.

Notes frustration

The executive director of the Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association, Ayron Schoneman, expresses the frustration felt by many in the agricultural industry. She said current laws regulating worker documentation are “unreasonable and unworkable.”

“We need to have a workforce, falsely documented or not,” she said. “We are educating our legislators that you cannot kick all workers out of the country who are falsely documented.”

One of the bills pending in Congress is particularly relevant to the agricultural community and has been strongly supported by both grower and labor organizations since its nearly identical predecessor was introduced in 2003. The Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits, and Security Act, commonly known as AgJOBS, contains provisions that would allow many unauthorized — but currently or recently employed — farm workers to obtain a temporary legal status, and to earn the right to convert it later to permanent legal status and even citizenship. This bill would also relax some requirements of the existing, though little used, H-2A work visa program through which workers can be admitted temporarily as “guest workers” for farm employment when resident labor is shown to be insufficient.

“There is significant opposition, however, to any legislation that would provide a benefit, such as legal status or even the right to participate in a visa program, to people who have broken the law in entering the U.S.,” Rosenberg said. “And some opponents argue against such legislation on grounds that adding to the labor supply tends to depress bargaining power, wages and working conditions for people legally in the labor market.”