(Oct. 21) BRAWLEY, Calif. — To hear the government tell it, Alex Jack should be finding workers climbing over each other to work on his family’s farm. After all, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2000, the unemployment rate in the area was 21%.
Nonetheless, when he puts in requests for a dozen or more workers with California’s Employment Development Department, frequently only one or two worker hopefuls, if that, turn up.
“We have a call in now for five irrigators and eight general ranchers, and we had one guy show up this morning,” Jack, owner of Jack Bros. Inc., said Oct. 4. “It’s getting to where we’ll elevate the numbers we need to make sure we get the minimum we absolutely have to have, and we’ll still be lucky to get two.”
Jack Bros., which was founded in 1915, was Western Growers Association’s first member. Labor woes at the company, which grows lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, melons and tomatoes in California’s Imperial County, is one of many examples indicating a problem with the way the Bureau of Labor Statistics quantifies employment numbers in the county, as well as in nearby Yuma, Ariz., according to WGA.
The problem not only masks the difficulties growers have in finding labor, but it also calls into question the accuracy of unemployment funds allocated by the government.
In fact, WGA commissioned a university study that was released the last week of September that calls into question labor statistics bureau employment numbers for those border areas, concluding unemployment figures are distorted by 50%.
The study, conducted by Gerry Schmaedick, a Yuma-based senior lecturer at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, compared unemployment statistics from the 1990 and 2000 censuses with bureau results from 1990 and 2000.
In Imperial County, bureau figures for 1990 and 2000 designated an unemployment rate of 20% and 21%, respectively. But the census data found rates of 12% and 14%, respectively.
The disparity also exists in the border area of Yuma, Schmaedick said. Labor statistics bureau figures showed Yuma County’s unemployment rate was 18% in 1990 and 21% in 2000. But census data for the same periods show unemployment rates of 11% and 12%, respectively.
“Weaknesses in the Bureau of Labor Statistics methodologies and lack of funding for data collection have led to these distortions,” Schmaedick said. “State analysts have had to rely on incomplete and insufficient data.”
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.”
Addressing the acute shortage of workers remains a top priority at WGA because it affects growers’ ability to harvest fresh fruits and vegetables at a reasonable price, O’Connor said.
In its survey of agricultural employers, 63% of the employers reporting chronic labor shortages were in the Imperial Valley and Yuma production areas from November through May, O’Connor said. The companies that faced shortages reported lost revenues because of late and incomplete harvests. And the growers also experienced lower production and poorer quality because of fields that could not be properly maintained with a worker shortage.