A Labor Shortage and Growers Blame Congress

Julie Preston reports:

Now harvest time has passed and tons of pears have ripened to mush on their branches, while the ground of Mr. Ivicevich’s orchard reeks with rotting fruit. He and other growers in Lake County, about 90 miles north of San Francisco, could not find enough pickers. Stepped-up border enforcement kept many illegal Mexican migrant workers out of California this year, farmers and labor contractors said, putting new strains on the state’s shrinking seasonal farm labor force. Labor shortages have also been reported by apple growers in Washington and upstate New York. Growers have gone from frustrated to furious with Congress, which has all but given up on passing legislation this year to create an agricultural guest-worker program. Last week, 300 growers representing every major agricultural state rallied on the front lawn of the Capitol carrying baskets of fruit to express their ire. This year’s shortages are compounding a flight from the fields by Mexican workers already in the United States. As it has become harder to get into this country, many illegal immigrants have been reluctant to return to Mexico in the off-season. Remaining here year-round, they have gravitated toward more stable jobs. “When you’re having to pay housing costs, it’s very difficult to survive and wait for the next agricultural season to come around,” said Jack King, head of national affairs for the California Farm Bureau Federation … For years, economists say, California farmers have been losing their pickers to less strenuous, more stable and sometimes higher-paying jobs in construction, landscaping and tourism. “If you want another low-wage job, you can work in a hotel and not die in the heat,” said Marc Grossman, the spokesman for the United Farm Workers of America. The union calculates that up to 15 percent of California’s farm labor force leaves agriculture each year. As they sum up this season’s losses, estimated to be at least $10 million for California pear farmers alone, growers in the state mainly blame Republican lawmakers in Washington for stalling immigration legislation that would have addressed the shortage by authorizing a guest-worker program for agriculture. Many growers, a dependably Republican group, said they felt betrayed … Some economists and advocates for farm workers say the labor shortages would ease if farmers would pay more. Lake County growers said that pickers’ pay was not low – up to $150 a day – and that they had been ready to pay even more to save their crops. “I would have raised my wages,” said Steve Winant, a pear grower whose 14-acre orchard is still laden with overripe fruit. “But there weren’t any people to pay.”

While I may be in favor of easing immigration restrictions, what is wrong with the market solution to a labor shortage, that is, increasing wages?