Farmers worry Florida bill will worsen labour scarcity woes

FLORIDA CITY, Florida (AP) – On a recent afternoon, many stools stood empty beside a conveyor belt where workers examined a stream of green tomatoes and tossed aside those with holes and cracks at a South Florida packing house.

Paul J DiMare, one of the country’s leading producers of fresh tomatoes, recalls the days when hundreds of foreign workers lined up to labour in the fields or box the produce at his facility in Florida City. The machines roared for more than 12 hours a day as truckloads of tomatoes rolled in to be washed, inspected and packaged. Now, they run for only four.

“If you have no labour, you can’t run your operation,” DiMare said.

The influential farmer and head of DiMare Inc is among a group of businessmen trying to kill a Florida bill that would require private companies to verify each new hire’s eligibility to work in the United States (US) through a screening process called E-Verify. DiMare said that could reduce the pool of candidates when his business faces a labour shortage of more than 30 per cent.

“I think illegal immigration is one of the worst things that has happened to this country,” he said. “But we don’t have a good immigration policy. And what are we going to do to replace those people?”

Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has made the issue a priority, saying it would remove an incentive for people to come illegally. The state Senate Judicial Committee approved a watered down version of the proposal on Tuesday. It exempts agriculture employers and companies that have fewer than 150 employees, but otherwise requires companies use E-Verify.

Workers sort tomatoes after they are washed before being inspected and packed, in Florida City. PHOTO: AP

Senator President Bill Galvano has been skeptical about a law that would require all employers use E-Verify because it would create a burden for employers in Florida’s vital agriculture, tourism and construction sectors. Similar measures have failed in the past.

More than 54,000 employers in Florida are currently enrolled in the E-Verify database, federal government records show. That list includes local and state agencies, which have been required to use the database since 2011. US Census Bureau data shows Florida had more than 480,000 establishments with employees in 2016.

The American Business Immigration Coalition, which DiMare co-chairs, said the measure could devastate the economy and cost Florida companies billions of dollars because they can’t hire as many labourers. The group said the first year of E-Verify compliance would cost small businesses anywhere from USD1,250 to USD24,422 per company.

The Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association said it’s a food security matter, as Florida harvests the majority of fresh fruits and vegetables for the US in the winter months. It said reducing the workforce would mean relying more heavily on imports.

The Florida GOP chairman, Senator Joe Gruters, is championing the bill. He said by curbing illegal immigration to Florida it will “allow market forces to increase wages at the low end”.

Farmers however say they have already been raising wages to solve the worker shortage as the unemployment rate reaches record lows. Raising the cost of doing business has put them at a disadvantage with international competitors.

“It will render (our produce) unsellable,” said Dan Richey, one of the largest growers of grapefruit. “If you try to sell a fruit made in America for USD3, or three for USD1 made elsewhere, what do you think the consumer will pick?”

Richey had to close one of his harvesting companies last summer because he couldn’t replace dozens of workers who were aging out. The CEO of the Vero Beach-based Riverfront Packing Company said using guest worker visas has been cumbersome and expensive because of housing and transportation costs.