FRESNO, Calif. – With the harvest in full swing on the West Coast, farmers in California and other states say they can’t find enough people to pick high value crops such as grapes, peppers, apples and pears.
In some cases, workers have walked off fields in the middle of the harvest, lured by offers of better pay or easier work elsewhere.
The shortage and competition for workers means labor expenses have climbed, harvests are getting delayed and fewer fruit and vegetable products are being picked, prompting some growers to say their income is suffering.
Experts say the shortage is not expected to affect prices for consumers.
But farmworkers, whose incomes are some of the lowest in the nation, have benefited, their wages jumping in California to $2 to $3 over the $8 hourly minimum wage and even more for those working piece rate.
The shortage is driven by a struggling U.S. economy, more jobs in Mexico and bigger hurdles to illegal border crossings.
And it has led some farmers to buy meals for their workers, pay for transportation to and from the fields, and give bonuses to those who stay for the whole season. A few have even stationed foremen near their crews to prevent other farmers from wooing away their workers.
“In the past, we were overrun with farmworkers. But not anymore,” said labor contractor Jesus Mateo, whose crews saw a 20 percent pay increase. “Employers have to do something to attract them. The fastest workers can now earn more than $1,000 per week.”
A California Farm Bureau Federation member survey being conducted this year thus far has found about half of farmers are experiencing shortages, said bureau manager Rayne Pegg. Many of the growers say their workforce has decreased by up to one-third.
In some cases, farmers are being paid below market prices, because their produce is past its prime, having stayed on the branch or vine for too long. Hardest hit are small farmers, who can’t afford to pay more for labor, Pegg said.
Farmers say immigration reform, which would legalize their current workforce and create a guest worker program to legally bring farmworkers from other countries, could solve the labor shortage problem. Immigration reform, however, has stalled in Congress.