Tulare County picked for farmworker pilot program

By Reggie Ellis

Tulare County went to bid for services on a pilot program this week to alleviate seasonally high unemployment rates in the country's most bountiful agricultural region.

The Tulare County Workforce Investment Board (TCWIB) is seeking an organization to identify job opportunities and industries that are counter-cyclical to the county's largest and most seasonal employer - agriculture.

On July 5, U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao announced that TCWIB would receive a $750,000 grant to train approximately 200 seasonal farmworkers for year-round employment with local businesses in need of skilled workers.

"Seasonal farmworkers want more than seasonal work," said Chao. "This $750,000 grant will help these workers get the training they need to remain employed year-round."

It's no secret that farm labor is a seasonal job. According to the Economic Development Department, Tulare County's farm industry employment fluctuated by about 45% in 2004 with a high of about 35,000 people in May and a low of about 24,000 in February; whereas non-farm industry employment remained relatively consistent throughout 2004 only fluctuating about 4% between 101,000 to 105,000. Generally, farm labor employment picks up in April, peaks in May and slowly declines through March.

"This program is targeting workers who want to remain working in ag but would also like to have year-round employment," said Natalie Hanes, senior analyst with the TCWIB.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor's National Agricultural Workers Study updated in March 2005, the majority of all crop workers (72%) expect to remain in farm jobs more than five years. Four percent stated that they would continue working in agriculture for less than one year; 12% said for two to three more years; 5% stated that they would continue in agriculture four to five years; and 7% were unsure. Future plans and expectations varied by legal status. Seventy-nine percent of the permanent residents stated that they would continue working in agriculture as long as they were able, compared to 64% of the unauthorized and 57% of citizens working ag.

When asked if they believed they could obtain a non-farm job within one month, 42% said "no," 37% said "yes," and 7% were unsure. Citizens (69%) were twice as likely as permanent residents (32%) and nearly three times as likely as unauthorized workers (23%) to believe that they could obtain a non-farm job within a month.

With local business input, the Tulare County Workforce Investment Board will identify skills needed to meet industry demands. Public- private partnerships will be developed to cross-train and link farmworkers with employers that need skilled workers.

"The Tulare County Workforce Investment Board and its partners will demonstrate how to provide alternative employment arrangements for farmworkers between harvests," said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Employment and Training Emily Stover DeRocco. The U.S. Department of Labor will be keeping an interested eye on the progress of this project.

This demonstration project will test whether a local workforce board can successfully use a combination of cross-training, counter-industry employment and job placement to provide year-round employment for seasonal farmworkers.

Unemployment

Direct services to the agricultural community through the project will increase skills for ag-related jobs, decrease dollars paid to unemployed workers during the off season through the Unemployment Insurance System, and strengthen collaboration and partnership with industries that are counter cyclical to a farmer's crops.

"We are excited and anxious to get started on this innovative project," Hanes said. "It's really a win-win situation because it helps farm workers keep year-round employment and eases the cost on the unemployment system in ag counties."

In 2001-2002 foreign-born newcomers averaged 90 days of farm work, compared to 190 days for other workers. Crop workers were employed on U.S. farms in 2001-2002 an average of 34-and-a-half weeks (66% of the year) and in non-farm activities for a little more than five weeks (10% of the year). They were in the United States but not working for approximately eight-and-a-half weeks (16% of the year), and were outside of the United States for nearly four weeks (7% of the year). Fourteen to 17-year-old respondents averaged just 14 weeks of farm work and did not work for fully half the year (27 weeks). This same group, however, averaged nearly six and a half weeks in non-farm jobs. Eighteen- and 19-year-olds worked 29 weeks in farm jobs, six in non-farm jobs, was in the United States but not working for 14 weeks, and spent less than one week outside of the country.

Seventy-seven percent reported having worked in agriculture at least 100 days. The number of farm workdays, however, varied by legal status. Unauthorized workers, excluding foreign-born newcomers, averaged 197 days, compared to 185 days for the authorized. These unauthorized workers were more likely than authorized workers to have worked at least 200 days (58% vs. 50%). Among authorized workers, permanent residents reported having worked an average of 195 days; citizens reported an average of 175.

"These people want to work, but often do not have the skills to work in another industry," Johnson said. "That's not to say they don't have skills, they just don't have skills for those other industries."

The problem of seasonal employment not only affects the worker but his family. Nearly three out of five (58%) crop workers interviewed in 2001-2002 were married, a larger share than in 1993-1994 (52%). An increasing number of farm workers have children. Thirty-eight percent had never been married and 5% were either separated, divorced, or widowed. Fifty-one percent of all farm workers, married or single, were parents, compared to 41% in 1993-1994. A little more than a third were single and without children and six percent were unmarried parents. In 2001-2002, parents employed in U.S. crop agriculture had an average of two children. Ninety-six percent of the children were under the age of 18. Nearly a third of the parents (31%) had one child.

In other words, the economic drain of someone on unemployment is only worse for them and the county the larger their family is, especially children who are not old enough to work themselves.

Nonfarm Skills

In order to keep farm workers employed year-round, TCWIB will find seasonal industries that peak when ag bottoms. Johnson gave the example of retail.

"Most farm workers can't work during the winter months, but that is when retail is in its highest point," she said. "If someone is used to packing oranges they could obviously do well stocking shelves for retail during the holidays. Our hope is that once the individuals skills and an employer have been identified that they would be called back to work in the following winter seasons."

One of the skills that will be part of the program is learning to speak English. According to the Department of Labor, Spanish was the predominant native language of crop workers (81%), followed by English (18%). The ability to speak and read English varied by place of birth and ethnicity. Nearly all (98%) of the US-born, non-Hispanic workers said that they spoke English "well," and nearly as many (93%) responded that they read English "well." Among US-born Hispanics, only two-thirds responded that they could speak and read English "well" (66% to both questions). Workers born in Mexico and other foreign-born Hispanics were at the other extreme of the English language ability spectrum, with the majority of both groups responding that they could not speak or read English "at all."

The major barrier to learning English is a lack of education. A large share of crop workers reported having completed relatively few years of formal education. Among all workers in 2001-2002, the mean highest grade completed was seventh and the median was sixth. Four percent reported having never attended school and thirteen percent had completed grade three or less. Sixty-six percent had completed between grades four to eleven, 13 percent had completed the twelfth grade, and just five percent had completed some education beyond high school.

Nearly all workers (97%) completed their highest grade in their country of origin: 72 percent completed their highest grade in Mexico, 26 percent in the United States, two percent in Central American countries, and less than one percent from all other countries. The highest grade completed varied by place of birth: on average, U.S.-born workers had completed the eleventh grade and foreign-born workers had completed the sixth. While 56 percent of the U.S.-born had completed the 12th grade, only 6% of the foreign-born had done so.

A Request For Proposal will go out in the coming weeks to identify an agency to provide the services under this grant. The program will start on Sept. 1 and will be funded for two years. If successful the program will be replicated in counties across the nation. TCWIB was contacted by the Department of Labor to pilot the program for consistently exceeding employment standards. TCWIB is a public and private sector partnership. It is the sponsor and primary funding channel for Tulare County Employment Connection, and for the electronic Jobtree job search, training and career information, and business information system. TCWIB also funds training programs offered by other Employment Connection Partners and local schools.

The TCWIB is the federally designated local agency for coordination of Workforce Investment Act (WIA) funds in Tulare County. The Board of Directors varies in size, and the majority of members are from local private businesses. The TCWIB is led by a volunteer governing board, and operates under the authority of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors. For more information on this grant or the program call Natalie Hanes at 713-5200.

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