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Undocumented Farm Labor Small Portion of Illegal Immigrants

Legal workers will have to be paid more, tax man says.

I recently watched a news program that claimed 50% of tomato pickers and dairy workers are undocumented immigrants (aka illegal aliens).  I also saw a PBS report that vegetable farmers and vineyards in California are struggling to find enough labor.  These reports raise an obvious question: How much risk does the ag industry face from deportations?

According to the USDA, wages make up about 40% of costs in labor-intensive crops such as fruits and vegetables. The labor component is a big factor for those farmers who are struggling. I think farmers across the country are torn on the matter – on the one hand, they need low-cost farm labor to make a profit, and on the other, they would prefer to hire legal workers.

According to the Pew Research Center, an estimated 11.1 million illegal immigrants lived in the U.S. in 2014.  Somewhat surprisingly, only a small portion of those 11 million work as farm labor.  According to the latest Farm Labor Survey, the number of hired and contract farm workers ranges from about 800,000 in winter to 1.1 million in the summer. The portion of hired farm workers who are not legally authorized to work in the U.S. fluctuates around 50%, according to the USDA Economic Research Service. The other half comprises legal U.S. citizens (33%) and green card holders. Do all the math, and we’re running somewhere around 500,000 illegal U.S. farm workers, out of a total U.S. population of 327 million. That’s only 0.15% of the population, and there are many millions of people not working. 

The headline unemployment rate is about 5% now. It sounds like only 5% of the population is not working. Not so. The calculation has been changing for decades, and it excludes all kinds of people. When considering actual unemployment in this country, I look at the employment-to-population ratio, which is the number of people employed divided by the total number of working-age people. 

A February 2017 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said that our employment-to-population ratio was 59.9%, which means 40.1% of working-age folks are not working. If you take approximately 200 million working-age residents and multiply them by 40%, you arrive at 80 million people. Bottom line, the workforce is available. But what does it take to motivate those folks to do farm labor?

According to a 2015 USDA report, average hourly farm worker pay was $12.27, which is above minimum wage, but well below the average hourly pay of $21.80. Motivating legal citizens with more pay may be one of the solutions. It could be difficult to get U.S. citizens to pick avocados for $12 an hour, but there is a number that will motivate them. Of course that number will have to exceed available benefits, which can include state unemployment payments, ACA subsidies, SNAP cards, SSI, Section 8 Housing, etc.

Another obvious solution would be to increase the number of green cards issued, which I suspect a business-minded administration will do. The last solution is increased mechanization, which has been under way for over 100 years.  (Did you know there are now strawberry picking robots?)

My opinion is that if it takes more pay to employ legal workers, as a society, we’re going to have to devote more pay to getting our vegetables out of the ground and fruit off of the trees. That will mean higher costs for fruits and vegetables. If it takes more machinery because people won’t do the work, then we’ll have to invent it.  Life will go on, and people will eat.

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