Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Yesterday, Governor Deal announced preliminary findings in the review of reports of farm labor shortages throughout South Georgia. Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black and Labor Commissioner Mark Butler estimate that there are 11,000 employment opportunities currently unfilled, with the duration of those jobs range from one day to several months.
The first proposed solution to fill the labor gap is to explore outreach to the state’s base of probationers.
Georgia Department of Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens estimates that there are 100,000 probationers statewide, with 8,000 in the core Southwest region of the state. Probationer status equates to some sort of jail or prison record, and thus means more difficulties finding employment. The Governor’s office reports this group faces a 25% unemployment rate, as employers are often reluctant to hire those without a clear criminal background.
Deal calls the matching of unemployed probationers with farmers needing labor “a great partial solution” and further stated “I want to encourage Georgia’s agriculture community to continue working with Commissioner Black. In the meantime, Commissioner Butler will continue to publicize the availability of agricultural employment opportunities and Commissioner Owens will work to potentially fill jobs on farms.”
Left unsaid in the proposal is that many unemployed probationers already live near the farms that need labor, yet have apparently not sought these jobs on their own volition. Critics point to the extended unemployment benefits versus the hot physical labor offered by farmers who need crop labor as a reason the unemployment rate remains high.
Others continue to point out that farmers have relied on steady illegal labor rather than doing the paperwork in advance to document guest workers which are currently allowed in virtually unlimited supply for farm jobs.
This problem, however, is dual sided. Those who wish to work without going through the step to attain visas are currently demonstrating that they will skip over opportunities that require documentation and scrutiny, or even the perception of resistance (as Georgia’s law has yet to even take effect) if there are other employers willing to hire them without taking these steps.
By attempting immigration reform at a state rather than national level, Georgia has unilaterally disarmed itself from a major section of the farm labor market. Farmers in neighboring states, at least for now, are able to continue business as usual while Georgia Farmers are scrambling to find workers.
Some help in unifying work rules may be coming, albeit slowly, on the national level. Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas introduced a bill yesterday that would eventually require all businesses to use E-verify to document legal employment status of workers. Georgia Congressman Jack Kingston has signed on as a co-sponsor.
The bill would require businesses of over 10,000 employees to comply within 6 months, and smaller businesses phased in over two years. Farms and other agricultural employers would have three years to comply, with seasonal workers verified during previous seasons not required to be re-verified each time they are hired.
The bill contains a pre-emption provision which asserts that the Federal government, and not the states, is the proper entity to enforce immigration laws, yet also specifies that states are entitled to use “business licensing and similar laws” to penalize employers that do not use E-Verify. Employers are granted safe harbor from federal penalties if they use E-Verify in good faith and receive incorrect notice of work authorization.
With additional states now considering their own proposals, the need for the federal government to begin to comprehensively address the issue of immigration becomes more pressing. Newt Gingrich may well have begun the softening the hardliners of this issue during Monday’s New Hampshire Presidential Primary Debate.
Rejecting a “this or that” solution of either deporting everyone here illegally or giving everyone citizenship, the federal government should instead be working to document who is here and why, as well as effectively control the borders. Once the above two steps are completed, it’s much easier to have a policy discussion on how much labor we need, and how many guests we can house.
Until such time, Georgia remains a front line laboratory on the cause and effects of reform methods. The first documented unintended consequence of HB 87 remains produce baking in South Georgia fields instead of in kitchens across the country.