The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
State officials confirmed Friday that they have started investigating the scope of Georgia’s agricultural labor shortages following complaints that the state’s new immigration enforcement law is scaring away migrant farmworkers.
Gov. Nathan Deal asked for the investigation Thursday in a letter to Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black. Deal wants Black’s department to survey farmers about the impact Georgia’s immigration law, House Bill 87, is having on their industry and report findings by June 10.
The labor shortages have sent farmers scrambling to find other workers for their fall harvests. Others are making hard choices about leaving some fruits and vegetables to wilt on their fields.
Proponents of HB 87 say people who are in the country legally have nothing to worry about concerning the new law. They hope the law that takes effect July 1 will deter illegal immigrants from coming here and burdening the state’s taxpayer-funded public schools, hospitals and jails.
The Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association has estimated the labor shortages afflicting South Georgia counties could put as much as $300 million in crops at risk. But the full extent of the damage won’t be known until after July, when farmers have finished harvesting their summer crops, including blueberries, watermelons and sweet corn, said Charles Hall, the association’s executive director. When that damage is tabulated, Hall said, it will help farmers decide whether they should plant less for future harvests.
Farmers say the Hispanic migrant workers they depend on to pick their fruits and vegetables are bypassing Georgia to work in other states. The workers are concerned they will be harassed or jailed here following the passage of HB 87, the farmers said.
Bill Brim said between 75 and 100 Hispanic workers he depends on didn’t show up for work this year at his 4,500-acre farm in Tifton, causing him to lose some of his vegetable harvests. Now Brim, who raises cucumbers, eggplant, squash tomatoes, watermelon and other fruits and vegetables, is considering cutting back on production and building more houses to shelter laborers he could get through a federal guest-worker program he already participates in.
“We have to pick and choose what we pick,” said Brim, a board member and past president of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association. “We have to skip over fields, not just because of labor but because of dry weather, too.”
Deal wrote Thursday in a letter to Black that “many farmers have raised concerns about the availability of an adequate, stable workforce for Georgia’s production agricultural industry.”
“Knowing the strong demand for farm labor will continue through the summer months, I request that you assess how this legislation is impacting agricultural operations,” he wrote in the letter, according to a copy obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The governor’s office provided the AJC with access to an electronic survey the state is using to measure the extent of the labor shortage. The survey doesn’t mention HB 87, but it does ask farmers how many more workers they need, how long they will need them, what they would pay per hour, and what they are doing to recruit employees.
Deal signed HB 87 into law this month. Partly patterned after a law Arizona adopted last year, Georgia’s measure empowers police to investigate the immigration status of certain suspects. And it penalizes people who transport or harbor illegal immigrants or encourage them to come here.
Asked to what extent this new law is causing the labor shortage, a spokesman for Deal said the governor supports federal guest-worker programs that allow farmers to legally bring noncitizens here to do seasonal farm work.
“We have always said we don’t make federal laws, but we are subject to them,” said Brian Robinson, a spokesman for Deal. “Before HB 87, it was illegal to hire someone who was in the country illegally.”
Black was not available for comment Friday. But his spokesman, Arty Schronce, said the commissioner did not want to speculate on what is causing the labor shortages. Schronce said his agency is willing to help publicize state job fairs and is encouraging farmers to share their job listings with the state Labor Department.
“We are focused on trying to find a solution,” Schronce said.
Black and Labor Commissioner Mark Butler were considering issuing a joint statement about the labor shortage, but there are no plans to do that now, Schronce said, because the problem has been reported in the news media.
Butler issued a statement Friday saying his and Black’s agencies are “working together to provide the workforce where needed to the agribusiness community.” Asked for specifics, Labor Department spokesman Sam Hall said: “We are still determining what we are going to do. … It will depend on what the necessity is.” Hall said Butler does not have enough information yet to determine to what extent HB 87 is impacting farm labor.
Jason Berry, the farm manager at Blueberry Farms of Georgia in Baxley, said a third of the 120 workers who were needed to pick highbush blueberries this spring did not show up for work even after the farm offered $50 signing bonuses. The farm also offered weekly $25 bonuses to people just for showing up for work.
Most of those who didn’t show up for work are Mexican and Guatemalan migrant workers who were fearful of the climate produced by HB 87 in Georgia, Berry said. The farm lost about 10 percent of its spring blueberry crop because of the labor shortage, Berry estimated.
“There is so much fear stricken into all of these people that a lot of them refused to come to Georgia,” Berry said. “They were inferring that because that law was passed immigration [agents were] going to be after them hard this year. They would think they could possibly get deported.”
Staff writer Matt Kempner contributed to this article.