Labor Supply: Seasonality, Employment, Immigration.
Average monthly employment on California farms was 418,000 in 1999, including an average 235,000 workers hired directly by crop and livestock farmers (56 percent) and 183,000 hired by agricultural service firms such as labor contractors and farm management companies (44 percent). Direct hires are falling, down 5 percent from 1983, and indirect hires through agricultural service firms are rising, up 90 percent since 1983. Agricultural service firms-- of FLCs, custom harvesters, and other third party employers who bring workers to farms—supply 50 to 75 percent of the workers for many seasonal tasks, including weeding and harvesting.
Employment on California farms peaked in 1999 in August at 522,000, and reached a low of 307,000 in January, for a peak-trough ratio of 1.7, i.e., 170 workers are hired directly by farmers in August for each 100 workers hired in January. The peak-trough ratio was higher for agricultural service firms, 1.9, than for direct hires, 1.6.
There are far more than 500,000 individuals employed on California farms each year. Farmers and agricultural service firms report 800,000 to 900,000 individuals (SSNs) to EDD each year for UI tax reporting; farmers and unpaid family workers are not included in these data.
Farm Labor in California
Workers without other US job options have typically borne the cost of seasonality by being willing to wait for seasonal jobs to begin; workers most willing to accommodate to seasonality have been newcomers to the state who could not get nonfarm jobs because of lack of English, contacts or skills. In 2000, about 95 percent of seasonal workers employed on crop farms are foreign born, and new entrants to the seasonal farm work force are almost 100 percent immigrants.
The major farm labor issue in 2001 is the terms on which US farmers should get access to immigrant farm workers. About 50 percent of seasonal farm workers across the US are believed to be unauthorized, with the highest unauthorized percentages among seasonal workers brought to farms by FLCs. There is a guest worker program-the H-2A program—that has three requirements relatively few growers can meet:
• Certification: In order to have visas issued to H-2A foreign workers, the US Department of Labor must "certify" a farmer's need for them. Generally, DOL does not certify need unless a farmer attempts to recruit workers via the Employment Services' Interstate Clearance System, which requires that farm employers offer free approved housing to ALL out-of-area workers—if US workers cannot be found, the housing is occupied by H-2A workers. Farmers without approved housing do not apply; 99 percent of employer requests for certification are approved by DOL.
• Wages: Farmers must offer to pay the higher of three wages: the federal or state minimum, the prevailing wage, or the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR).
The AEWR is generally the highest of the three wages. Its purpose is to avoid having the presence of foreign workers depress the wages of US farm workers. Since 1987, the AEWR has been the average hourly earnings of field and livestock workers in a state or region, as reported to USDA by farm employers for the year before, e.g. in 2000,
the AEWR was $7.27 an hour in California, $6.74 in Arizona, $7.25 an hour in Florida, $7.64 an hour in Washington, and $6.98 an hour in North Carolina. For many farmers, the AEWR exceeds current wages.
• Litigation/Bureaucracy: Growers who apply for H-2A workers are required to hire qualified US workers who apply until 50 percent of the work for which they requested H-2As is completed. If a farmer requests certification for 100 workers, and 50 US workers agree to report, the farmer is certified for 50 H-2A. If the 50 US workers do not report, or they report and are found by the farmer to be not qualified, the farmer can request emergency certification for additional H-2A workers. At this point, legal services, lawyers, and the ES may question the employer's judgement about the qualifications of the US workers.