Around the Table

August 12, 2008 - 11:56

During a time of heightened debate over immigration reform and increased accountability on business owners, the immigration issue is hitting everyone close to home. Hear what other big growers had to say about how this critical issue is impacting their livelihoods, and what solutions they would like to see implemented in the near future.

How much of your workforce is made up of immigrant workers? How important are they to your business’ day-to-day operations and long-term success? “Around half [of our employees] are immigrants; many of them have been working with our company for more than 10 to 15 years. This group of immigrants has become an integral part of our business organization, with quite a few individuals moving up the ranks to assistant growers, supervisors and managers.”

— Bert Lemkes

“First, the word immigrant needs [clarification]. If you ask my father-in-law, Jake Koornneef, he will say he is an immigrant from Holland. And he is! He started Delray Plants more than 40 years ago when he came from Holland and is now a U.S. citizen. About 70 percent of our workers are from Guatemala, Haiti and Mexico. Obviously, we could not run the day-to-day operations without them, and our future depends on them.”

— Randy Gilde

“At this point, it’s probably about 70 percent. They are very important. We just wouldn’t get the work done without them. It doesn’t come down to how much you pay someone; it’s just about finding someone willing to do manual labor in a greenhouse environment. We just can’t find people.”

— David Loop

“Out of my total workforce, it’s probably about 60 percent. It’s an extremely important part. We have to have that portion of labor that does the ‘down and dirty’ job.”

— John Mossel

What is the biggest challenge you are currently facing in regards to managing your immigrant workforce?

“Keeping the negative rumors from spreading and actively getting involved in explaining the positive contribution this immigrant labor force makes to the economy; promoting the excellent work ethics they demonstrate; and making sure that the company I-9 documentation is audited on a regular schedule.”

— Bert Lemkes

“We have always tried to be a company that is a leader and to do what is right. With that said, we also get a little more attention than most because we are one of the largest operations in the country. The EPA, OSHA, DEP, DOL (and the list goes on) have all been to our operations for regular inspections.

We have always worked closely with every government agency. We have also worked for years with our labor lawyers and labor consultants. As complex as everything is with immigration today, we feel you have to have professionals come in. Everything is bilingual, which is required most places. Also, most of our managers and crew leaders are bilingual.”

— Randy Gilde

“The communication day to day can be hard. We don’t have enough bilingual employees. Also, we do everything by the book. If we do get any Social Security mismatch [letters] from the Social Security Administration, we do notify the employees and generally have let them go. But if someone presents a counterfeit license or government-issued identification card, it could be a problem if they put the accountability on us.”

— David Loop

“You have to make sure all your paperwork is in order and that you’re going through the right hiring processes. We had an immigration attorney come in last year and guide us through that process, to make sure we were taking the right steps and to help us [navigate] the process better.”

— John Mossel

How is the ongoing immigration debate impacting your bottom line?

“The debate has not added anything but anxiety. We do need a solution for all parties involved. The issue is important for all labor-intensive agriculture business in our area, and the outcome of the debate will be a determining factor for the future of many in this industry.”

— Bert Lemkes

“[Hiring] consultants and lawyers and doing everything right has increased the cost of operating a farm. We have more people in HR than we do payables. The other big factor is available labor. We turn away more people than we hire.”

— Randy Gilde

“They need to resolve the issue: You can’t send all immigrants back. They need to come up with some sort of program to legalize the folks who are here and then tighten the borders if they want. There are so many industries — from fast food to tourism — that are very dependent on immigrant labor.”

— David Loop

“There are a couple of different sides to the fence, obviously. All I can say is that we need a clean and open channel available for this type of workforce. A channel for those workers who want to do work and are willing to do hands-on labor to work here. We have a serious need for that.”

— John Mossel

What kind of solution do you envision to help address the rising labor shortage threatening the horticulture industry?

“Considering the changes in the demographics, we do urgently need comprehensive immigration reform, with simple procedures to get work permits for those willing to work. Nobody benefits from the current situation, which has built up over many years. Any solution that places an emphasis on enforcement-only — while not considering, with the same intensity, the labor market; the ‘immobility’ of many unemployed; and the type of jobs that are being filled by this group — will only hurt our industry and economy. Mechanization and automation is the only other direction, but with the current market changes and increased focus on peak production, it will continue to be a challenge to make this economically feasible.”

— Bert Lemkes

“We have always worked with our politicians — both locally and nationally — and it’s time they do what’s right. They have done nothing for more than 20 years, and now it’s the worker and the employer who are wrong? They want to discipline us for something they should have fixed long ago! The government should give the people who are in the United States work permits and a [path] to citizenship. At the same time, secure the borders and [establish] a fair process for coming to the United States to work.”

— Randy Gilde

“I don’t have a good answer for that. I just know we’re going to need immigrant labor. We have to come up with a plan to allow immigrants in, whether that’s changing the guest-worker program or something else.”

— David Loop

“We have to make sure that there’s an open channel to allow that kind of worker to come in and do a good job. Part of it also falls on us to make sure we’re doing a good job for them too: helping them with housing, making sure they’re set up with checking accounts, etc. There’s always stuff that we can do to assist our workers in managing their finances and having a more comfortable life here.”

— John Mossel

About The Author

Darhiana Mateo is associate editor of GPN’s Big Grower. She can be reached at dmateo@sgcmail.com or (847) 391-1013.

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