PLANT CITY, Fla. — Meeting ahead of their seasonal spring start, Florida blueberry growers heard how they can more efficiently work with the laborers who harvest their crops.
Labor discussions dominated the March 7 meeting of the Bartow-based Florida Blueberry Growers Association.
Fritz Roka, a researcher with the University of Florida Institute of Food & Agricultural Sciences’ Southwest Florida Research & Education Center in Immokalee, said improved software is allowing federal and state agencies to more efficiently share information in their electronic verification efforts.
“The essential problem we’re facing is 50%-70% of your workers aren’t legally documented,” he said. “If the INS takes them away, who are you going to replace them with?”
Monique Perez, an investigator with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Tampa wage and hour division, discussed the importance of growers’ labor documentation.
“You have to educate your crew leaders,” she said. “They’re the ones in the fields making sure you’re properly recording hourly records. Make sure your records of hours worked are accurate because it is a problem, not just in the agricultural industry but in every industry we work with.”
Association president Bill Braswell, owner of Auburndale-based Polkdale Farms and manager of Bartow-based Clear Springs Packing LLC, said the labor sessions helped growers understand a complex issue.
“The growers had an opportunity to go one-on-one with the department of labor and other experts,” he said. “Some questions were answered and the fog cleared. If nothing else, there are a lot of labor laws we need to understand better.”
Braswell said show attendance was 275, down from the 500 that attended last year. He said lower attendance was likely because northern Florida growers were busy the night before to ensure berries weren’t damaged when temperatures dropped to 32 degrees.