Birmingham, Alabama – Jerry Spencer calls himself a “problem-solver.” So when Alabama state law HB56 took effect late last month, he was quick to respond to the cries he heard from farmers across the state.
They needed workers.
The law, which allows police to detain people indefinitely if they are suspected of being here illegally, has led Latinos to leave the state in droves – and has left industries like farming in desperate need of a workforce.
Spencer began transporting unemployed city workers, many of them African-American, to the rural farmers that needed their help.
“The farmers have to look and see is it possible for some of these workers to take on the work of the farm come spring,” said Spencer, whose business helps farmers distribute their produce to customers throughout the state. ”[City workers] are just not used to the work necessary on a farm…I don’t know of but two people out of the eight that we took on the job today that ever even been on a farm before.”
Spencer’s experiment has been met with mixed results. Out of the nearly 100 people he’s helped transport to farms over the last five weeks, he said only about ten have been able to complete the work consistently.
One important issue? The pay.
“The word of mouth has spread around that the hours are long, the pay is low, the work is hard,” said Hezekiah Jackson, president of the Metro Birmingham Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “At the end of the day, a person just wants to do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. And they don’t feel like that’s the case with these particular jobs.”
Farmers don’t necessarily pay by the hour or minimum wage – the pay depends on the amount of work done, the type of work done and if there are other workers to split costs with.
On some tomato farms, for example, a worker can earn two dollars per box of tomatoes picked. A skilled picker can earn anywhere from $200 to $300 dollars a day on some farms.
“This is a ways from Birmingham,” said Jesse Durr, who came with the Spencer’s group about 50 miles northeast of where he lives in Birmingham. “You don’t get paid by the hour. You get paid by the job. It’s really hard to figure out.”
Durr, who recently lost his job at a local Applebee’s, has been one of Spencer’s more consistent workers. But he’s one of the few.
A new state initiative, ‘Work Alabama’, is attempting to connect the unemployed with temporary agricultural jobs. Workers can create an online profile and be added to a list farmers can access when they need work. Hundreds have signed up so far, but farmers have been slow to reach out for help.
They don’t trust an inexperienced workforce.
”[The new workers from the city] are trying very hard,” said Ellen Jenkins, a tomato farmer whom Spencer has been bringing workers to this month. “They just don’t have the [skills].”
“I don’t want to be perceived as the face of illegal immigration bills in the country, and I could be that,” Alabama governor Robert Bentley told The Associated Press last week.
The law, HB56, aims to crack down on illegal immigration and open up jobs to legal citizens who have been unable to secure them in the past.