To find workers to pick, pack and ship peaches, Lane Packing participates in a U.S. Department of Labor guest worker program.
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE STORY
- Gov. Nathan Deal is looking for ways to fill the agricultural workforce gap after some areas lost workers
- Some migrant workers left the country after the immigration law was passed, the producers' association said
- Some unemployed Georgians say they don't like farm work
- “You have to get up early in the morning and it’s hot,” said Marci Mosley of Atlanta
Atlanta (CNN) – Are you unemployed? Are you looking for a job? Do you live in Georgia?
If the answer to these questions is yes, Gov. Nathan Deal has an idea for you: Become a farm worker.
“We still have an unemployment rate here that is unacceptably high, whether or not we can provide some of these individuals with an opportunity to transition,” Deal said last week.
“Maybe in some cases relocation is necessary so they can fill some of those positions. We will investigate all these things.”
Deal is looking for ways to fill the farmworker shortage after some areas lost more than 50% of their workforce, the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association said. Many workers left Georgia after the governor signed an Arizona-inspired immigration law that allowed local police to identify and arrest illegal immigrants, the group said.
Producer: Migrant workers avoid Georgia
Other countries have tried similar ideas to stimulate growth. Japan has a program to place young underemployed workers on farms during the summer. The program was moderately successful until a tsunami hit the country in March.
According to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, 1,799 U.S. residents applied for jobs in agriculture in 2009. That was up from 39 in 2008, although state officials say the number fell again to the “low hundreds” in 2010.
With Georgia's unemployment rate at 9.6%, University of Georgia economist Jeff Humphries thinks the governor's plan could work.
“Employers have the upper hand and job seekers are more desperate than ever,” Humphries said. “With unemployment benefits running out for more and more workers, this is the best time to give it a try.”
But for some unemployed Georgians, the idea isn't so appealing.
Marci Mosley, who lives in Atlanta, has been unemployed for more than a year. She said she would only work on a farm as a last resort.
“I have a phobia of snakes,” Mosley said. “I hate spiders…You have to get up early in the morning and it's hot.”
Mosley, an African American, said she used to work on her grandfather's farm in Texas, where he emphasized the importance of getting a good education to get off the farm. Mosley believes Deal's plan would be a hard sell to many other African Americans because of their older relatives' struggles with farming.
“It could be a setback for people,” Mosley said. “The only people who would even think about it are people who have nothing else left… An educated black person doesn't have time for that. They didn't go to school to work on a farm, and they won't do it.
Unemployed white Georgians also won't sign up for agricultural jobs, farm managers said.
In Peach County, more than half of residents are white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and 26% are unemployed, according to the Georgia Department of Labor. The district is kept afloat by jobs in agriculture.
One of the largest employers is Lane Packing, where workers pick, pack and ship peaches there. “It's hard, dirty work that few people will do, especially U.S. citizens,” said Mark Sanchez, CEO of Lane Packing.
To find workers, Lane Packing participated in a U.S. Department of Labor guest worker program. Sanchez explained that the vast majority of workers here are legal immigrants.
“We have to pay a minimum wage of $9.12 an hour,” Sanchez said. “Plus free accommodation, free transport from home and back. Additionally, most workers are paid piece rate for production.”
That equates to a weekly paycheck of $230 more than the average unemployment check in Georgia.
While putting the unemployed to work on farms is a novel idea, the workers in Georgia who stand to benefit most from the agricultural shortage are legal immigrants, said Humphries, the University of Georgia economist.
“There is less competition for the kinds of jobs that legal immigrants want,” Humphries said. “Legal immigrants come from the same countries as illegal immigrants, they are used to the same types of jobs, and the good news for the legal immigrant is that they may be able to command a little more wages.”