The bureau’s findings are used by state agencies to allocate federal assistance. Schmaedick said national and state statistics were more accurate but that county tabulations were “highly suspect” because calculations are made based on data from larger populations that dilute specific differences from county to county.
Terry O’Connor, vice president and general counsel for WGA’s Western Growers Law Group, said the association has been looking into the labor issue in border counties and the disparity in labor statistics for several years.
“The labor issue has been frustrating,” O’Connor said. “The BLS says there are high levels of unemployment, but when our growers try to hire workers, they can’t find people. What’s wrong with this picture?”
A major problem with the way the labor statistics bureau conducts its studies is that it does not account for the fact that in border areas like Imperial and Yuma counties, many workers live in Mexico and cross the border each day to work in the fields in the U.S., O’Connor said. Because the bureau does not count those laborers or their jobs in its figures, its unemployment rates are artificially high, O’Connor said.
Of all employed workers in Imperial County, 40% reside in Mexico, he said. Although those workers and their jobs are not counted using labor statistics bureau methods, O’Connor said, they are included in the U.S. Census figures, which is a more accurate accounting of the work force. In a WGA survey of agricultural employers in the border area, about half reported a shortage of job applicants. Of 55 companies surveyed, 28 reported a lack of workers.
“We have tried for several years to get California (the Employment Development Department) to admit their numbers are slanted or to at least revise the process, which is greatly flawed,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor said WGA worked with employment department to try to recall farm workers who had worked previous seasons but that the efforts yielded only one or two employees for every hundred recalled. WGA turned to the university study when department would not investigate its figures after the worker recalls.
O’Connor said Schmaedick’s findings have long-term ramifications for the agricultural work force.
“The enormous discrepancy between the actual unemployment numbers and the findings of the Census Bureau and the numbers reported by state unemployment agencies has a broader impact on the immigration debate,” O’Connor said. “Opponents of immigration reform and guest worker visas have cited these inflated figures as a reason to oppose the much-needed changes.”