If the current administration in the White House was successful in closing the southern border and deporting all migrant farm workers, it would be devastating to Upstate's economy according to a report prepared earlier this year by Farm Credit East.
Libby Eiholzer, a bilingual dairy specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension, shared the finding of the report during a presentation Tuesday to the County Legislature's Human Services Committee.
"What they found was there are at least a thousand farmers in the state that are at a higher risk, that they are highly dependent on immigrant labor," Eiholzer said. "If they lost their employees they could potentially go out of business. It would reduce the ag production by over $1 billion. There would be 900,000 fewer acres in production. On-farm jobs would be reduced by 20,000 and then there would be another 23,000 fewer off-jobs in the industry. The total economic impact would be $7.2 billion."
Farmers are so dependent on immigrant labor that they feel caught between INS enforcement and farm labor advocacy groups, Eiholzer said. Both the agency and the labor groups, farmers fear, are a threat to their ability to stay in business. That makes them hesitant to raise their concerns publicly about immigrant labor or work with the advocacy groups to ensure farm workers receive adequate care and protection.
What Eiholzer and a colleague did earlier this year was convene a focus group of dairy farmers from Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties in Batavia, which allowed farmers to speak out anonymously so Cornell could complete a study on the status of immigrant labor.
"This was the largest number of farms that we surveyed," Eilholzer said. "We also talked to 200 workers on those farms. What we found is that these farms, that are really representatives of other farms of similar size in the state, are very reliant on a Hispanic workforce. Seventy percent of the farms that we surveyed had at least half, if not all, of their workforce comprised of Hispanic individuals, and another quarter had a portion of their employees comprised of Hispanic individuals."
The farmers do all they can to ensure their workers have the proper documentation to allow them to work in this country, but they don't have the resources or the authority to dig too deeply. If they ask for paperwork beyond what they would as an Anglo worker, they risk accusations of discrimination.
"The only way to know the I-9 forms are not accurate is if the INS comes to your farm and does an I-9 audit and they tell you somebody is not allowed to work here," Eiholzer said. "Farmers do their due diligence to make sure people are eligible to work here but at the same time, you know that at least half of the immigrant farm workers here in the country (are undocumented)."
The full report (pdf) outlines what Eiholzer and researcher Thomas R. Maloney found.
Among the findings, it's very hard to find native-born New Yorkers to take manual labor farm jobs.
The managers also looked locally to recruit American workers through local high schools or BOCES programs, but with very little success. American workers often require a lot of social services support, which adds additional time and burden on the employer through additional paperwork requirements imposed by the social services programs and often resulting in a failed employment scenario.
Advocacy groups are pushing for higher wages, overtime pay, better housing conditions, and the right of workers to form labor unions. While farmers acknowledge there are things that could be done to make life better for workers, they don't feel the advocacy groups understand the farm business and are really out to destroy them. That distrust prevents them from bringing leaders from these groups to the farms to work with them on improving conditions.
From the report:
Their concern stems from their belief that these groups have an agenda to ultimately harm their farms, rather than actually to help farm workers. ... The advocacy groups have referred to farm employment practices as a form of “modern-day slavery,” which underscores the tone of animosity that these groups have toward the employers.
Starting hourly pay for milkers is $9.34, with the highest rate going to $11.05. The highest rate for any Hispanic worker on average is $12.94. Farmers acknowledge, as a matter of being competitive for workers, the starting rate was low. Since the report was issued, the minimum wage rose to $9.70 and it will go over $10 an hour after the first of the year. Farmers have adjusted wages for all workers accordingly.
The farmers often provide free housing. They said the housing, especially group housing, is difficult and expensive to maintain, and this is an area where advocacy groups could actually help if they could be trusted to come onto dairy farms and not disrupt operations.
At the same time, if the state keeps increasing the minimum wage, and farmers are forced to pay overtime, and workers are allowed to form unions, housing is one area farmers could be forced to cut expenses, even charging rent to workers to offset higher labor costs.
Eighty percent of Hispanic dairy farm workers in the state receive free housing from their employers.
As financial pressures build on the farms, the result is to push some of the costs down to the employees. This phenomenon is commonly seen in other industry sectors when costs increase for the employer. This presents serious complications, as the Department of Labor has stringent compliance regulations regarding on-site housing for employees. There is a concern that employers may take advantage of their employees when there is a landlord/tenant relationship as part of employment. Focus group participants would prefer not to be in the landlord business.
A change in overtime rules would also have a trickle-down effect that would hurt workers, the report found.
Their Hispanic workers who ask to work 60-70 hours per week and would seek other employment that would meet their income expectations. Those who do not leave likely will be upset, as their hours and overall pay will be cut drastically. These are the workers who most want to maximize their earnings but would end up earning less. Employers acknowledge that this move will force them to hire more people to work fewer hours or start to think about switching to robotic milking systems.
The unpredictability of the Trump Administration on immigration and reports of greater enforcement and how these political factors have changed the perception of Hispanic workers in the communities where they live have caused fear and anxiety for farmers and workers.
This level of unpredictability is causing a sense of fear and nervousness for farm employers, workers, and the community at large. Interestingly, it was stated that the workers are not worried about crossing the border, but they are very concerned about being deported from Western New York. The most damaging and immediate impact of the recent Executive Order has been to instill a sense of fear in the community regarding these employees. Some Hispanic employees have stopped leaving the farm altogether since the order was announced. They will pay others to purchase their groceries for them, as they are afraid to be seen out in public. Farm employers are very concerned about the impact that this type of self-imposed isolation will have on their employees.
There is a perception among focus group participants that the Trump Administration is focused on jobs for Americans and does not comprehend the impact agriculture has on the U.S. economy. Agriculture is a $30 billion industry.