Probationers could be allowed to work on farms in Georgia

Marketplace, Thursday, June 16, 2011

In response to the state’s new strict immigration law, and the shortage of farmers that followed, Georgia governor Nathan Deal has proposed allowing probationers to fill the void on farms.

Peaches. (Adriene Hill/Marketplace)

Kai Ryssdal: The state of Georgia’s got a tough new immigration law about to go into effect. It’s making life harder for farmers in the Peach State. A survey not too long ago found they’re short about 11,000 workers, jobs most commonly filled by immigrants, both legal and not.

The news has brought an interesting proposal from Georgia governor Nathan Deal. How about filling those jobs with people on probation who are looking for work?

Charles Hall is the executive director of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers’ Association. It’s an industry trade group. Good to have you with us.

Charles Hall: Thank you Kai.

Ryssdal: Where did this idea come from, of having probationers working the farms?

Hall: I think it was a brainstorming session with several of our commissioners and, I guess, with the governor. I’m not sure exactly where it came from.

Ryssdal: Now to be clear, this would be a voluntary program, right? Because I have to tell you, when I first heard about it, it sounded vaguely like a chain gang.

Hall: Well, a probationary person — a person that is on probation — would be hired by the farm just like a regular citizen would be hired. It’s not something that would be mandatory. Of course, they’d have to be able to withstand the work performance levels — it’s hot in Georgia. Right now, it’s about 98 degrees outside, and this is an eight- to 10-hour job that you’re out on the field. You’re stooping, bending, lifting and it’s not something that everybody can do.

Ryssdal: How much are they going to make?

Hall: The average harvester in Georgia — depending, again, on the commodity — but our average harvester makes somewhere around $12.50 an hour. It all depends on productivity, because the harvesters are paid based on piece rate, but they have to be paid at least the minimum wage.

Ryssdal: Now Georgia has a new immigration law, which is fairly strict in who can work in that state. How much of a role do you think that law had in migrant labor staying away from the state of Georgia?

Hall: Well, we understand from talking to our crew leaders and their conversations with the immigrant workers that many of them felt concerned as to what the new law would mean to them, how well would they be able to move around the state; if they were stopped for a traffic violation, if they did not have the proper documentation on them, whether they would be deported at that time.

Ryssdal: Was your group in favor of or opposed to that law?

Hall: We were opposed to the law — this is House Bill 87. We were concerned about the law for several reasons, but primarily because of the concerns of the additional burden it puts on the growers as far as the E-Verify portion of the law. There was concerns with regard to the enforcement component of the law. We quite honestly didn’t expect the reaction to the enforcement component of the law to be quite as strong as what it’s been.

Ryssdal: Charles Hall, he’s the executive director of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers’ Association. Mr. Hall, thanks so much for your time.

Hall: Glad to.

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