Sunday, September 21st, 2014
Half-True
Black
Workers who pick produce in Georgia’s fields can make $12 to $18 an hour.

Gary Black on Thursday, June 2nd, 2011 in Interview

Some farm workers do earn high wages, but not all do

Recent talk about a shortage of workers in Georgia’s fields left your PolitiFact team wondering whether we should consider a career in cucumbers.

The work may be hard, but if you believe Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black, the industry pays solid wages.

"Understand that these are $12, $13, $14, $16, $18 an hour jobs," Black told 90.1 WABE-FM’s Denis O'Hayer in an interview. "Talked to a gentleman yesterday, they had a crew of people, they were going to make $130 a day picking cucumbers. That’s 130 buckets of cucumbers, $1 per bucket."

Up to $18 an hour? That’s more lucrative than flipping burgers or greeting customers at Walmart. Suddenly, picking cucumbers seemed like a viable Plan B.

If Black is right, farm labor could be a neat answer to Georgia’s joblessness problems. Unemployment remains high at 9.9 percent. GA DOL  Farmers complain their immigrant labor force is leaving the state to avoid racial and ethnic profiling, harassment, or deportation they think will result from House Bill 87, Georgia’s Arizona-style immigration crackdown.

HB 87 requires that certain employers check their new workers’ immigration status and gives law enforcement officers more leeway to check a suspect’s immigration status. Gov. Nathan Deal signed the bill May 13, but it’s being challenged in federal court.

Farmers report they’ve already lost thousands of dollars because they can’t find enough laborers.

Black and others told us that field worker wages are often based on production. The more you harvest, the more money you get.

"They range from minimum wage to as high as $18," Black told PolitiFact Georgia. He cited instances where farmers told him solid workers could make even more.

But can job seekers reasonably expect to make $12 to $18 an hour?

First, a note about harvesting jobs. A lot of them are temporary, and hours vary depending on Mother Nature. Laborers may have to work for 12 hours or more to pick a crop before it rots.

Reporters for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed workers and farmers who said pickers earned about $100 a day. One worker said she expected to work about 12 hours for that amount.

The most recent Georgia Department of Labor data date from the summer of 2010. The state tallied wage and employee numbers from farms with 10 or more employees who are covered by regular unemployment insurance. Such employers are required to report their numbers to the state.

For 13 weeks during July, August and September, 10,600 or so workers in Georgia were involved in "crop production," or worked in farms, orchards, groves, greenhouses and nurseries that grow crops or plants. This group can include supervisors.

They made an average of $367 per week, the data show.

Pay varied depending on the crop. For instance, some 3,100 vegetable and melon workers made an average of $311 a week; about 1,000 blueberry and other non-strawberry crop workers made about $268; soybean crop workers (there were only 17) made about $666.

The state Department of Labor did not determine an average hourly wage, so we did our own rough calculation. Although field workers often work 12-hour days, we based our figures on a 40-hour workweek to be conservative.

We found that crop workers make about $9.18 an hour. Vegetable and melon workers were near $7.78.  Blueberry workers made about $6.70 an hour. The soybean rate is $16.65, but that is for workers operating complex farm machinery, a relatively small number of workers.

These numbers were lower than Black’s figures, so we turned to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s farm labor data for additional verification. They calculate regional wage rates for "field workers," or employees who plant, tend or harvest crops.

We looked at spring and summer wages for the Southeast, which includes Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. Field workers made $8.86 per hour during the week of April 11 through 17, 2010. They made $9.12 an hour July 11 through 17, 2010.

The federal figures were also lower than Black’s, so we consulted another source: former field worker Andrea Hinojosa, who opposes the immigration crackdown. She is director of Southeast Georgia Communities Project Inc., which provides health, education and other services to farm laborers.

The onion pickers Hinojosa serves generally make 38 cents for each bucket, she said. Fast, experienced workers can make $9.50 or $10 an hour.

It may be possible to make $12 an hour picking onions, Hinojosa said, but it’s rare. $18 an hour is far-fetched.

"I’ve got to tell you, I’ve never seen, never heard of someone making $18 an hour," Hinojosa said.  

In sum, it is possible to make $12 to $18 an hour, as Black said, but those amounts are far higher than a typical wage. Information from state and federal agencies, the director of a farmworker aid group, and AJC reporters shows wages are closer to $10 an hour or less.

Black’s statement is accurate on its face. Some farm workers "can" earn $12 to $18 an hour. Most, however, do not. His statement leaves out key details and takes things out of context.

This is our definition of Half True.