Georgia may use prisoners to fill farm labor gap
By: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
10/10/2011 9:39:14 AM
State officials have set their sights on another potential pool of workers to help bridge Georgia's severe farm labor gap: prisoners.
The idea is to put nonviolent inmates - who are spending the end of their prison terms at one of the state's 13 transitional centers - to work picking fruits and vegetables across Georgia.
This is at least the state's second attempt to tackle the labor shortages since enacting a tough new immigration law many farmers blame for their problems. State officials started experimenting last summer by encouraging criminal probationers to work on the farms, but results are mixed.
State officials hope the nonviolent offenders would be motivated to learn new skills, earn money and eventually land steady jobs that would help them once they get out of prison.
The prisoners would help fill open jobs in Georgia's $68.8 billion agricultural industry, the state's largest. And Farmers could become eligible for federal Work Opportunity tax credits by hiring the offenders once they finish their terms.
State Corrections Department officials confirmed the details of the latest plan Wednesday, calling it a joint effort between the agency, Gov. Nathan Deal and state agriculture and labor officials. They said the idea is still under development, and they have not set a start date.
The work would be voluntary for the prisoners. Pay would be set by farmers, though it would be at least minimum wage. Prisoners would pay for their transportation to and from the farms.
Offenders are referred to the state's transitional centers by prison officials and the State Board of Pardons and Paroles based on their criminal records and behavior in prison. Wages they earn on work release are sent to the centers. Portions are applied to room and board, fines, fees, restitution and child support. The rest is held for them until they are released. More than 2,700 inmates are in the transitional centers now.
"Gov. Deal is interested in having an organized system to match a group that needs employment with employers who need labor," Stephanie Mayfield, a spokeswoman for the governor, said. "It's not a cure-all, but it allows two groups with fixable needs to help each other."
A state survey of farmers released in June showed they had as many as 11,080 jobs open. On Tuesday, the agriculture industry released a separate report documenting $74.9 million in crop losses tied to farm labor shortages.
Some farmers blame Georgia's new immigration law, House Bill 87 that targets illegal immigrants and those who harbor them. They say the measure is scaring away the Hispanic migrant workers that farmers depend on, putting their crops at risk.
Proponents of the law say it will prevent illegal immigrants from taking jobs away from U.S. citizens. But farmers contend many U.S. citizens won't pick fruits and vegetables on their fields because the work is hot and physically demanding. So, many of these producers hire Hispanic migrant workers, and many of them are in the country illegally.
Charles Hall, executive director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, said putting prisoners to work on the farms "may be a partial solution."
"I don't think we are opposed to it," he said. "We just have got to see how well it will work."
Deal, who signed HB 87 into law in May, reacted to the labor shortages by proposing putting probationers to work on the farms. Hall said some of the probationers who worked on two vegetable farms in Sumter and Colquitt counties during this summer's pilot program quit because of the heat, long hours and physically taxing jobs they got.
Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black summarized more results from the pilot program Tuesday while testifying before a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Boarder Security. One farmer who participated in that program found the probationers to be half as productive as his other workers, Black said in written testimony. Another farmer found only 15 to 20 reliable workers out of 104 probationers.
"There were some obvious challenges with using probation labor," Black said, "and the two producers found that the probationers were unable to harvest at the same rate as the other workers. At the end of the day, both producers agreed that the program had potential to meet the niche needs for farmers desperate for workers."
Black told the subcommittee another way the government could help deal Georgia's farm labor shortage is through a new and improved guest worker program. Many farmers complain the existing federal H-2A program is plagued with red tape.
Black suggested the federal government could create a guest worker program and allow states to administer it through agreements. He pointed out such relationships already exist between the states and federal government concerning environmental and food safety regulations.
Black's office is studying whether Georgia can legally create its own guest worker program. His report, which is required by HB 87, is due to Deal and state lawmakers by Jan. 1.
"Why not let Georgians help Georgians," he told the Senate panel Tuesday, "when it comes to administering guest workers so long as the state meets requirements established and monitored by federal authorities?"
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