Rotting Apples & Vanishing Workers

We’re not taking their jobs. In the 14 years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen an American working in the fields. - Odilia Chavez, undocumented farm worker

The year was 2011. I was on a TV news assignment, driving through a rural Alabama apple orchard at harvest time. You might imagine a bustling scene: row after row of workers picking apples off bountiful trees. But the reality was starkly different. Yes, I passed row after row of bountiful trees – but these trees were dropping overripe apples straight to the ground. Thump, thump, thump. The ground was littered with apples, rotting and disintegrating back into the earth from which they came. The same workers that so gingerly pruned and cared for these trees in the springtime were nowhere in sight.


Where were they? A few months earlier, Alabama’s legislature passed one of the strictest, most controversial immigration bills in recent history, HB 56. It enabled police to check citizenship status at traffic stops, and ordered public schools to report the number (although not identities) of illegal immigrant students. Terrified families pulled their children from public schools, and a mass exodus ensued. The state’s farming sector, dependent on migrant labor, was hit the hardest.


After the farmer’s immigrant workforce fled, he attempted to hire new workers to pick the apples. Time was running out. He was facing an entire years’ worth of hard work and investment with nothing to show for it.


At the time, the state’s unemployment rate hovered around 9%, so he thought he might get some interest. Not the case. I went into town to try to find out why, and the answer was quickly revealed. I was told, point blank, by more than one unemployed American that they get more money from welfare and unemployment benefits than they would earn picking apples.


The farmer did not disclose how much he pays his workers. But since then, wages haven't changed much, nor has the minimum wage. Currently, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), the average total income of farm workers is between $15,000 to $17,499 a year for individuals. That's the rough equivalent of the federal minimum wage, $7.25 per hour.


Meanwhile, a study by the Cato Institute demonstrated that welfare recipients "earn" up to $29 per hour!


If you want to jump on the gravy train, here’s a list of states where welfare recipients are paid more than minimum wage. This is truly jaw-dropping.


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Today, another industry in a different circumstance faces a similar problem. Across America, restaurants have been eager to reopen as the end of the pandemic is FINALLY in sight. They called up their waiters, chefs and bus boys, who they tearfully let go when COVID-19 began. “We finally have a job for you again! Come back to work!” But the excitement quickly dissipated when call after call, email after email, their former employees rejected their offers. They’d cast a wide net, looking for new applicants. At best, a few resumes trickled in.


The reason? Here in Missouri, this calculator demonstrates that a minimum wage worker would earn $378 per week, but up to $920 per week from COVID crisis unemployment - the equivalent of $23 per hour! For many restaurant workers, the prospect of receiving COVID relief unemployment checks instead of toiling on their feet all day was too appealing to pass up.


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It’s not their fault. It’s human nature to take the path of least resistance to reach a goal (in this case, acquiring money). Instead, let’s shift our attention to the government, paying unemployed Americans as much as they would earn if working. This makes very little sense, especially when you consider our spiraling deficit and debt.


Still, let’s look at the other side, as every thorough argument should do. Those with a different philosophy might blame the lack of interested workers on the employers: if they paid more, the workers would come running! This argument conjures imagery of villainous big businesses, greedily withholding money from employees. But the reality is that roughly half of America’s private sector workforce is employed by small “Main Street” businesses (according to U.S. Census and SBA statistics). And in this higher wage scenario, many of these small family-owned farms and restaurants simply wouldn’t survive.


My take? Our government should focus on ways to support our small business owners who employ workers, instead of throwing TRILLIONS of “stimulus” dollars at disincentivizing the unemployed to return to work. Think about that. Trillions of dollars. These checks might stimulate the economy in the short term, bridging the gap during a difficult time by paying for this week’s groceries. But what about groceries next week? Next year? How much help is too much help?