LA Times Finds California Farms Not Hiring

The LA Times has a very interesting story about how the recession is causing a surplus of farm labor in California.

The collapse of the construction industry and a slump in the restaurant and food service sector have sent thousands of people back to looking for work on California farms, which not so long ago were hurting for workers.

The state’s unemployment is near 10 percent, and workers who were getting better pay in better conditions have no choice now.

Farther north, in Yolo and Sutter counties, Charlie Hoppin is turning away workers.

“I feel bad I can’t hire more,” Hoppin said, adding that there was a good supply of equipment operators who had lost jobs grading housing developments and in other construction projects.

Sounds familiar.

I really like how the LAT gives the backdrop for why farm workers had been in such short supply: Low wages. Reporter Jerry Hirsch questions whether the conventional wisdom is correct (remember John McCain’s canard that no Americans would pick lettuce for $50 an hour?):

At the time, farm interests held up Vessey’s experience as evidence of how badly the nation needed both a guest-worker program and a way for illegal immigrants to gain legal status.

Whether there was a true shortage is still a matter of debate. The lack of workers could have been the result of a reluctance by farmers to raise wages enough to persuade people to do farm work, said Phil Martin, a UC Davis farm labor economist.

“You can’t talk about need or shortage without talking about wages,” Martin said.

Farmers and agribusiness interests generally say they can’t afford to pay much more than the minimum wage because of international competition, Martin said.

Most reporters wouldn’t have put that great context in there.

The problem with this story is it doesn’t have a single quote from an actual worker. We should have heard from someone who’s lost their better-paying job and is now doing stoop labor.

But the good outweighs the bad here.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.