By Jay Reeves
The Associated Press
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Jerry Spencer had an idea after Alabama's tough new law against illegal immigration scared Hispanic workers out of the tomato fields northeast of Birmingham: Recruit unemployed U.S. citizens to do the work, give them free transportation and pay them to pick the fruit and clean the fields.
After two weeks, Spencer said Monday, the experiment is a failure. Jobless resident Americans lack the physical stamina and the mental toughness to see the job through, he said, and there's not much of a chance a new state program to fill the jobs will fare better.
Gov. Robert Bentley has called such claims "almost insulting" to Alabamians. The new program has signed up about 200 people who want to work, but so far only one employer has sought one worker, the administration said.
"There are people willing to do the jobs," said Tara Hutchison, a spokeswoman for the Alabama Department of Industrial Relations.
But Spencer said that of more than 50 people he recruited for the work, only a few worked more than two or three days, and just one stuck with the job for the last two weeks.
"It's pretty discouraging," said Spencer, chief executive of the Birmingham-based Grow Alabama, which sells and promotes produce grown in the state.
Tomato farmer Helen Jenkins agrees that there is a problem filling a labor void she said was created by the new law, parts of which have been blocked by federal courts.
"It's just not working," said Jenkins, who grows tomatoes on Chandler Mountain, near Gadsden. "You can't get the (American) workers out here to do the work that the Hispanics were doing. They're just not capable."
Lana Boatwright, another tomato farmer near Steele, said many of the people she has tried to hire since the law went into effect were concerned about losing their government disability payments if they worked in the fields.
The Bentley administration announced a program last week to use a state labor website to let citizens sign up for jobs in agriculture and other industries.
Addressing what supporters of the law referred to as a temporary labor shortage linked to the crackdown, the Bentley administration announced a program last week to use a state labor website to let citizens sign up for jobs in agriculture and other industries affected by a loss of workers.
"There are people today who want these jobs," Bentley said in announcing the program. "I think it is almost insulting to say people in Alabama won't do a hard day's work for a decent day's pay."
That may be true, but Spencer said he hasn't been able to find unemployed people who would work quickly enough or long enough to make the decent money that Bentley talked about.
A four-person crew of immigrant workers can pick and box more than 250 crates of tomatoes in a day, Spencer said, or enough for each person on the crew to earn about $150 at the height of the harvest.
A 25-person team of citizens recently picked and processed about 200 boxes in a day, he said, earning each member only $24. Spencer said the people weren't in good enough physical condition to work harder or longer hours and typically gave up when faced with acre after acre of tomato plants ready to be picked.
Supporters of the law say it will help reduce unemployment by freeing up jobs now held by illegal immigrants and Alabama's most recent jobless rate was 9.9 percent, but Spencer said he is ready to give up trying to find unemployed citizens to help with the harvest.
"If I saw some workability in it I wouldn't want to stop. But I don't see any change for these unemployed to replace the Hispanics," he said.
In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal urged farmers to hire people on probation to work in the fields after a law similar to Alabama's was blamed for a shortage of agricultural workers there. An informal survey there showed a shortage of more than 11,000 farmers there during the spring and summer harvest.While a federal appeals court last week blocked a part of the Alabama law that made public schools check on the immigration status of schools, it let stand a section that allows police to check a person's immigration status during traffic stops. It is also a felony for illegal immigrants to conduct basic state business like getting a driver's license.