From TimesDaily.com, M.J. Ellington, Montgomery Bureau, 29 Jul 2011.
[Montgomery, AL] — Horticultural farm owner Bill Cook said months before most of the state’s illegal immigration law takes effect, he’s already having trouble finding the workers he needs.
Representatives of the Alabama Department of Agriculture, Alabama Farmer’s Federation and other groups that work with growers said some farmers have told them they’ve already lost half their workforce. The state doesn’t have official figures yet, however.
Cook blames the new law.
The first hint of trouble came when he advertised for a landscaping supervisor for his 90-acre spread in Montgomery County that supplies plants and trees for plant nurseries.
After advertising the job, Cook got two applications for a skilled landscape supervisor job he said pays “well above minimum wage.” In a typical year, Cook said he’d have 30 applications for the job.
“We want secure borders and we work to comply with the federal rules,” Cook said. “But this new immigration law is robbing us of the skilled labor we need in the hardest economic times most growers have ever faced.”
One problem in filling horticulture jobs is that they require a high degree of skill that many people don’t have, he said.
“The legal people are apparently leaving along with the illegal people because they all want to stay together,” he said.
Cook is president of the Alabama Farmer’s Federation Montgomery County chapter and past state president of the federation and of the Alabama Nursery and Landscape Association.
Proponents of the new law, including the primary sponsor, Rep. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, said the law should open up jobs for Alabamians as illegal immigrants leave. People who work with the growers disagree.
“When they say the unemployment is so high so the workers have got to be out there, they need to come walk a mile in our shoes,” Cook said.
He also debunks the claim that immigrant workers drive down wages or take jobs that U.S. workers could have.
“We’ve tried to do the right thing,” he said. “We hire people that have been through federal screening and they know how to do the job. Don’t take them away from us suddenly now.”
Doug Chapman, Alabama Cooperative Extension System regional agent for horticulture over 10 north Alabama counties, agrees growers aren’t paying workers wages that are below minimum wage.
“I can tell you that all of my growers are concerned,” said Chapman who is based in Athens. “The bottom line is there is no local labor, period. A lot of my growers say they never had a local person come by and apply for a job.”
What Americans see as backbreaking, sweaty, dirty labor, many immigrants see as a ticket out of overwhelming poverty in their home country, he said.
“They don’t want to go back to conditions that are frightening and unbearable at home, but they’re leaving Alabama for states with less restrictive laws,” he said.
Chapman said something is wrong with the system if growers can’t find people to get the job done.
“Some people here would rather sit at home and collect welfare, but these immigrants are eager to work long hard hours for a better life,” he said.
Now, Chapman said people are trying to help growers cope with the new law’s requirements.
“E-Verify is our people’s ticket to stay out of jail,” he said.
E-Verify is the federal Internet system to check employee immigration status.
But even if growers confirm their workers are here legally, Chapman said that won’t solve a worker shortage.
The solution may be that growers will not plant as much in the future if they worry they can’t get enough people to harvest their investment, he said.
Agriculture Commissioner John McMillan said he’s heard of growers planning just that. He said the issue is primarily federal. He hopes lawmakers will modify the law in the 2012 legislative session, something Cook wants as well.
M.J. Ellington can be reached at mjellington@TimesDaily.com.