Gov. Nathan Deal’s plan to use probationers to ease the state’s farm labor shortage has farmers wondering whether these new workers can take the heat. Literally.
Temperatures soar into the 90’s in Georgia’s fields. Harvesters spend hours in the sun stooping, bending and carrying heavy baskets of fruits and vegetables.
Hispanic immigrant workers, some here illegally, usually take on this backbreaking labor, but farmers say they’re leaving the state because of the state’s tough new immigration laws. Probationers taking their place have trouble lasting even one day, according to media reports.
WABE-FM (90.1) host Denis O’Hayer asked Deal about the probationers during a June 16 interview.
"From a practical point of view, does that say to you that this experiment may not work?" O’Hayre asked.
"Well, there’s no question it is difficult and hard work. I think you know that when you get into the field," Deal replied. "But our reports are a substantial number of them were actually able to finish the work."
Opponents of Georgia’s recent immigration crackdown often complain that most Americans don’t want or can’t handle field work and other jobs performed by legal and illegal immigrants.
So, we wondered, have a "substantial number" of Georgia’s probationers really been able to withstand a full day’s work in the fields?
Probationers are offenders who serve their sentences outside of prison. Generally, they must be employed to meet the terms of their probation.
The DOC supervises about 8,000 probationers in South Georgia, the heart of the state’s agricultural industry. Some 2,000 of them are unemployed, according to the department.
Deal’s pilot program started the week of June 13, soon after a survey by the state Department of Agriculture determined that farmers were short 11,080 workers. By then, the vegetable harvest season was already ending and growers complained crops were rotting in the fields.
The pilot program invites low-risk, non-violent probationers to work voluntarily in the fields for $7.25 an hour or more. As of June 20, two farms in Sumter and Colquitt counties have hired probationers as part of the pilot, and the probation office in a third county, Echols, is also participating.
We asked Deal’s office for proof that a "substantial" number of probationers finished the work. A spokeswoman directed us to the Georgia Department of Corrections, which has joined with the state departments of Labor and Agriculture to run the pilot project.
Corrections spokeswoman Gwendolyn Hogan emphasized the pilot program is just getting started. Many qualified probationers have yet to be told about it, and it’s too early to say how well they fill the state’s farm labor needs.
Hogan gave few specifics on worker turnover, saying the numbers are still being collected and reviewed. But she says that when the program began June 13, the number of participants each day was in the single digits. As of June 20, "10, 11 or 12" were showing up for work.
During the first week, an average of seven probationers worked each day in Sumter County, Hogan said. An average of five or so were repeat workers.
We contacted the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association for more information. Both farms participating in the pilot project are part of the group, which opposed the immigration crackdown.
Executive Director Charles Hall stressed that it’s too early to pass judgment on the pilot program. Growers may be unable to tell how well it works until after the fall harvest.
"This may be a good alternative. It may be a partial solution," Hall said. "It will take us some time to work through."
In Sumter County, the program began Monday June 13, when three probationers showed up for work, Hall said. None of them returned the next day.
On Tuesday, two arrived and worked all day.
One of them returned Wednesday, and nine new recruits joined him. Six of the 10 probationers who showed up worked most of the day.
In Colquitt County, the program started June 18, Nine of 11 probationers made it through the work day, Hall said. Five returned the next day.
Since then, Agricultural Commissioner Gary Black has said publicly that the program has had mixed results so far. Black told WXIA-TV 11 and Georgia Public Broadcasting that only two farms had signed up and a number of probationers weren’t returning to work. He remained "cautiously optimistic" the program could be refined for the fall harvest.
The Associated Press reported similar problems. Probationers came to work without gloves and other protective clothing. They couldn’t keep up with the Hispanic crews and wilted in the heat.
Deal spokeswoman Stephanie Mayfield said that the number of probationers who stick it out still count as substantial.
"Given that we aren’t trying to fill all our agricultural labor needs with probationers, the turnout has been substantial for a few farms in South Georgia, and we’re working hard in conjunction with the Departments of Agriculture, Corrections and Labor to expand the program," Mayfield wrote us in an email.
Let’s sum up.
Deal said "substantial" number of probationers "finished the work," but this claim has serious shortcomings.
You could argue that since 7 out of 14 probationers returned the next day for more work, the program had a 50 percent success rate. To some, 50 percent might seem "substantial." The work is difficult and newbies often drop out.
But the pilot program was designed to place some of South Georgia’s 2,000 unemployed probationers in the state’s 11,000 empty harvesting slots. Participation rates of potentially eligible probationers is so low that it’s premature, and even bit misleading, to say that "substantial" numbers of probationers have finished the work.
"Substantial" numbers of probationers have yet to even participate in the program.
Deal was misleading. But we’ll be generous and give him some credit for the fact that half of the pilot’s 14 participants returned to the fields for more backbreaking labor.
Deal earns a Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.