Guest Worker Program, Labor, Opinion/Editorial/Commentary

We Need a Commonsense Guest Worker Program

From, John Salisbury, Opinion, 29 Oct 2011.

John Salisbury

John Salisbury

A report on our Citizen wine grape picking crew. After a “Call to Arms” for local unemployed citizens to pick grapes that started in our monthly column in the Avila Community News and our blog, we were picked up by Cal Coast News, Lewis Perdue’s international “New Fetch” wine blog (you should get it if you want to know what is going on in the wine business worldwide), ‘Wines and Vines’, and by KSBY’s television newscast.

We had over 80 inquiries for the jobs. We had forty come in and fill out a five page application from which we picked 22 to come in for an interview with four of those not showing up. So we took the 18 remaining and started picking on a Wednesday. That day cost us over $500 a ton which is three times the normal. The next day it picked up a little.

We were becoming worried because we were getting behind as the Pinot Noir was quickly getting ripe. So we brought in one of our veteran documented crews on the third day. They (75 percent women) lapped the citizen crew. The fourth day was a Saturday and four of the “citizen crew” didn’t call or show up and at the end of the day we let another six go because they just weren’t up to the job and hadn’t showed any improvement or the desire to do so. It was obvious this was their first time in the field or else the first job ever for some of the younger pickers (some were “volunteered” by their mothers).

That left us with eight, one of whom could only work two weeks resulting in the “Magnificent Seven” (out of 80) and quite a diverse group it is. The leader is a retired Lt. Col. Air Force Chaplin, plus an unemployed waitress, a graphic designer, a fine young man from Transitions Mental Health, and three young fellows with various degrees of college education. Three members of this crew do quality control by taking leaves and bad bunches out of the bins plus picking while the others are pure pickers. To date they are averaging around $12 an hour.

At this point, I wouldn’t trade them for anybody but unquestionably they will not be back next season because they will all certainly get better jobs in the meantime.

We had to really chaff through the straw to get the kernels and this process is not sustainable. We are bit lucky here because we are near urban populations. But what about those in the remote rural areas where most of the ag-jobs are? How do they get the unemployed, hours away, to the fields? Because of regulations (ask Dan DeVaul), you can’t house them anymore unless you have something akin to a Motel 6 on the ranch. How are farmers going to be able to do this with our unemployed with an unreal dropout rate of over 90 percent as in our case? We guaranteed $80 a day and worked mostly six to seven hours a day to get the fruit into our co-op crusher cool and before the bigger growers tied up the equipment. So the days were not that long for the tough work and the weather was cool in Avila, but we still couldn’t keep most of the citizen pickers.

Nationwide there is an acute shortage of farm workers including California. Washington apple growers who are running radio ads offering $120 to $150 a day to pick apples with few takers. Washington state officials figure that the agriculture labor force is about 72 percent “document challenged.”

Georgia figures there are 5,200 jobs short for field workers. Alabama, which brought it on themselves with the country’s toughest immigration laws, is reporting huge shortage of labor for construction, agriculture and poultry. Texas is looking for pickers for organic crops without much luck. When these crops are not picked, all the people, mostly U.S. citizens, who process, ship, sell, provide goods and services to all parts of the agribusiness chain also don’t work. The domino effect is tremendous.

Farmers are stuck to the land and do not have the privilege of an Apple or Gap that can move their production to countries with many low wage workers with little protection for the employees.

Contrary to popular belief, we usually pay at least 20 percent above the minimum wage. We are regularly inspected by OSHA, EPA, Air Quality Control, Dept. of Pesticide Regulations, Regional Water, and County Ag Commissioner and on and on. We supply the safest food in the world at a reasonable price that must rise just by supply and demand if this labor situation is not brought under control.

The alternate is the importation of foods grown with $8 a day labor and a lack of government oversight on food safety. If you like your oil coming from unfriendly regimes, then you are really going to love your food coming from them.

I have seen many comments about subsidies for farmers – hardly in California. My family has been farming in the state for 161 years (1850) and there were not any subsidies in tough times for us when trying to hang onto the farm. Crop insurance costs money and doesn’t come close to paying for what can be lost in potential wine sales.

With the coddling child labor laws, farmers can’t take the risk of hiring anyone under 18. They can’t use ladders, work near operating equipment, use sharp equipment (shears) and many other restrictions which have led to the demise of the present day work ethic that many of my generation fortunately developed as kids while working on farms and at other businesses. How many of our unemployed are fraudulently gaming the system with unemployment insurance, welfare, and social security disability payments instead of being available to work on farms? At least 20 of the applicants that responded to our call for pickers were physically able to do the job but wanted cash so as to not jeopardize their government payments.

We need a guest worker program now. The Obama administration has initiated twice as many immigration enforcement cases against businesses in the first seven months of this year as compared to the year before. And he gets a pass with the Hispanic voters?

The labor pool is drying up because of fears of the migrant workers who are finding out that the business owners can’t risk the penalties for hiring undocumented workers. We need a guest worker program with USDA certified employers, taxes paid, proper wages, good working conditions, licensed and insured drivers. They can easily net a thousand dollars a month which goes a long way in a town or village where workers may make $250 a month if they have a job.

In a few years, most won’t be back to be replaced with others, because they will have made enough money to buy a farm, market, or be able to use their acquired skills in business and live where they really want to be – home. There also will not be the need to bring their families across the border to live. That practice started when the Bracero Program was halted in the mid-1960s and has led to some of our social problems of today. A commonsense Guest Worker Program is needed now.

John is a 6th generation California farmer whose family has been continuously farmed in California for 160 years starting in the Sacramento Delta in 1850. John now concentrates on farming 45 acres of wine grapes in the Avila Valley and Paso Robles producing Salisbury Vineyard wines.

Source:, “We need a commonsense guest worker program” by John Salisbury, Opinion, 29 Oct 2011.


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