While labor in the fresh produce industry remained plentiful in 2009 and the labor issue didn’t crack the Top 10 story list in 2008, the issue became increasingly newsy in 2009.
After immigration reform was a no-go in 2007 to rank as the No. 4 story of that year, according to The Packer, many in the produce industry figured labor issues would resurface as a top story eventually.
The 2008 Top 10 stories poll hinted at 2009 and 2010 being possible watershed years for immigration reform when Barack Obama’s election signaled change for the industry and ranked as the No. 10 story of 2008.
Immigration issue momentum continues to ramp up now.
In November, Immigration and Customs Enforcement ramped up audits of employer records at the same time the Department of Homeland Security pushed the E-Verify system.
ICE recently announced a plan to audit 1,000 businesses to ensure they are using legal workers.
Meanwhile, fruit and vegetable growers are trying to balance the needs of a steady and reliable base of employees and a desire to ensure all worker documents are legal and verifiable. The alternative is to face the prospect of hefty fines — businesses in all sectors have paid almost $16 million this year.
Citations by the U.S. Department of Labor to blueberry farms and farm labor contractors in Michigan and New Jersey, along with a segment on a national TV news program, shone a spotlight on labor.
The Adkin Blue Ribbon Packing Co. case was highlighted in a segment on ABC News’ “Nightline” on Oct. 30. That report, led by ABC News reporter Brian Ross, showed a 5-year-old girl named Suli carrying two buckets of blueberries in an Adkin field in early July.
On Oct. 7, the Obama administration revoked the no-match rule, meaning agricultural employers didn’t have to worry how they would comply with Bush administration no-match rules.
The no-match regulation set out guidelines that employers were obliged to follow or face possible I-9 violations and fines in the event of a workplace audit.
In a statement to members, Robert Guenther, senior vice president of public policy for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., said the no-match regulation would have been a time-consuming burden.
Guenther said United will “continue to oppose processes that create uncertainties and disruptions throughout a broad sector of our produce work force.”
Also, 2009 proved a landmark news year for Florida tomato industry workers.
East Coast Growers and Packers Inc., Mulberry, Fla., broke ranks with much of the Florida tomato industry by entering into a penny-per-pound agreement with Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc.
Although foodservice operators and retailers — including McDonald’s and Whole Foods — had agreed to paying a penny more for each pound of tomatoes picked, East Coast was the first major grower to enter into an agreement with its field workers.
In June, shortly after garnering support from two growers, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers began pressuring Publix Super Markets Inc., Lakeland, Fla., to participate in deals to increase pay for Florida tomato pickers.
The Sept. 10 announcement came after months of discussions with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
July marked a decision by six Democratic senators to take the card-check provision out of the Employee Free Choice Act as a ploy to move the bill through the Senate.
Six senators in July decided to remove the card-check provision to secure a filibuster-proof 60 votes.
The provision required companies to recognize unions when a majority of workers sign cards in favor of organization.
The revised bill mandated elections be held 10 days after 30% of employees signed cards in favor of representation.
The Department of Labor on May 29 suspended the final rule that took effect Jan. 17 and announced a new wage rate formula for the H-2A program, undoing months of industry work and input on changes to the guest worker program.
On May 14, six years after it was first introduced, the Agricultural Job Opportunity Benefits and Security Act of 2009 was reintroduced to Congress.
In March, a proposed nine-month suspension for the new H-2A guestworker program rules that went into effect in January.