Conditions for blueberry pickers under scrutiny at area farms

Aug 18, 2010 | Journalism

Author’s Note:

I wrote this article in 2010 for The Press of Atlantic City.

Maybe the most important thing I learned as a journalist was to always go one step further in my research than anyone else had before. This “watchdog” article took me several months to gather data from federal agencies and interview dozens of farmers. It was the first time my newspaper ever took an in-depth look at how often area farms violated labor laws.

HAMMONTON – For two months every year, untold thousands of migrant farm workers fill the blueberry fields of southern New Jersey, working long hours under intense sunlight and pressure to hurriedly harvest before moving on to the next state that needs them.

In the rush to produce as much fruit as possible, federal investigators say, farmers have historically neglected these itinerant laborers, breaking the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Migrant and Seasonal Worker Protection Act, and other laws made to protect the people who work in the region’s farms.

In recent years, the U.S. Department of Labor has made this region – and the blueberry harvest in particular – a focus of its annual inspections, part of a national effort to crack down on illegal farm-labor practices.

“The strategy is to identify industries where there are serious compliance problems, and in terms of New Jersey, the blueberry harvest has been just that,” said Patrick Reilly, director of the agency’s Southern New Jersey District Office. “It’s a situation that generates problems, because there is such a large amount of workers who come in for such a short season.”

Since 2000, state blueberry farmers paid nearly a quarter-million dollars in federal fines, almost all of it due to labor violations at Hammonton’s farms. Reilly said that is far more than any other single crop in the region, since growers of vegetables and other fruits require fewer workers and employ them on a longer, less hectic timeline.

“Generally, it’s not as chaotic an arrangement,” Reilly said.

Over the same period of time, blueberry growers in the state paid only about $18,600 to the New Jersey Department of Labor in penalties and back wages.

This year’s harvest finished at the end of July, but investigations continue. Reilly said his inspectors have found several violations this year, as they do every year, but the results will not be released until September.

The most common problems are with migrant housing, where issues such as overcrowding and basic sanitation abound. Farmers also sometimes keep incomplete payroll records, or pay employees less than the $7.25 per hour national minimum wage.

Last year, federal investigators said they found seven children, ages 7 to 12, working in three Hammonton fields. This year, after the department raised the maximum fine for child-labor violations from $1,175 to $8,000 per incident, investigators said they found no such violations.

Farmers argue that the intensity of the annual picking period makes it nearly impossible for them to monitor every aspect of their operation at all times. They often say that they were unaware of issues until investigators brought them up and that the appeal process is cumbersome and unfair.

“It can be pretty scary for a grower to make sure everything is perfect,” said Dennis Doyle, head of operations at Atlantic Blueberry Co., one of the largest producers in the country and employer of more than 700 workers for its two main fields in Hamilton Township.

Reilly said all his department wants is for farmers to obey the rules.

“The goal of what we’re trying to do is to achieve compliance,” he said. “The laws are written to make sure nobody gets hurt in doing work like this.”

Where the violations are

There are 7,700 acres of blueberries in New Jersey. Of those, 6,100 are in Atlantic County, and another 1,200 are in Burlington County, the state Department of Agriculture says. The rest are spread across the state.

Of the 31 farms fined since 2000, 26 are in Hammonton, one is in Hamilton Township, one is in Mullica Township and three are in Shamong Township, Burlington County, the Department of Labor’s records show.

Atlantic County has 76 blueberry growers, mostly in Hammonton. Burlington County has 84 growers, but the acreage is smaller at each, and the farmers do not need to hire as many migrants, creating fewer problems.

“If everything’s being done by your nieces and nephews, it’s going to be different than bringing in 400 workers and trying to corral everything that comes with it,” said Gary Pavlis, Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County agricultural agent and specialist in blueberry crops.

Blueberry pickers in Hammonton, NJ. The speed and stress of the blueberry harvest has caused federal investigators to fine dozens of farms in southern New Jersey for labor violations.

In 2003, Variety Farms, a 600-acre producer on Pleasant Mills Road in Hammonton, paid $91,925 for a long list of violations, by far the most serious fine in the past 10 years.

A 46-page report states that Variety Farms employed 909 migrant workers that year who lived in six labor camps. During that July’s investigation, inspectors found facilities overcrowded by 263 people, with workers living in tents, tractor-trailers, pickup trucks and sewer pipes.

“The grower did this to assure an adequate work force with little concern for the health and welfare of the occupants in the overcrowded housing facilities,” the report states.

The report’s list of problems included a lack of adequate sanitation, lack of proper space between beds and failure to provide separate sleeping areas for both sexes.

Investigators said the company improved some of these conditions in follow-up investigations and that “in the past, this farm has always been a model for migrant labor housing throughout the season.”

David Berger, the farm manager whom investigators interviewed, did not return several phone calls to comment on the violations.

Columbia Fruit Farms has paid the second-highest fine since 2000 – $48,703.20 in 2005 – because of housing violations as well as failing to pay full wages to 16 workers.

The more than 300-acre farm on Middle Road in Hammonton, owned by William DiMeo and Anthony DiMeo Jr., had four camps at the time to house a mix of Mexican, Puerto Rican and Haitian workers.

Inspectors recommended $167,950 in fines for issues including overcrowding, unsanitary toilets and floors, not having enough stoves or shower heads for the people living there and having beds too close to each other. Federal law requires beds, cots or bunks be 3 feet apart and a foot off the floor. There also needs to be 50 square feet of floor space for every person living there.

“Workers and children were sleeping on floors with collapsed cardboard boxes, foam mattresses or inflatable mattresses, and children (were) coming to investigators asking, ‘Mister, can you get us a mattress, I’m sleeping on the floor,'” the inspectors’ report reads.

Anthony DiMeo Jr. and William DiMeo did not return several calls to comment on the violations.

The report also cites the farm’s labor contractor, Sorel Rinvil, who hired the company workers from Florida. Rinvil, of Belle Glade, Fla., received $7,757 in fines last year for child-labor violations, the largest fine for an individual contractor since 2000. The Labor Department said he never responded to those charges, and the department is now trying to collect those funds.

Contractors, with whom farmers work to get the necessary number of workers in preparation for each season, also paid nearly $50,000 in the past decade for violations at blueberry farms in the region. Those fines are usually smaller, however, with the second largest being $7,500 for contractor Jean Pinto in 2006, followed by $3,272 for contractor Noe Castaneda last year.

Among other farms, Anthony Scordo Farms in Hammonton has had the most failing inspections, with six in the past 10 years. It paid a total of $6,333.10 since 2000, including a $59.50 fine in 2000 and a $2,650 fine in 2005.

Mohawk Farms, Indian Brand Farms and Cosmo Farms, all in Hammonton, were fined after four different inspections during that time, at $5,813.75, $5,592.75 and $5,485, respectively.

Living conditions

Bill DiMeo Jr., a cousin of the DiMeos who own Columbia Fruit Farms, co-owns 260-acre Indian Brand Farms on Middle Road, where he said they use about 160 workers every year. His farms failed investigations in 2001, 2002 and 2005.

Indian Brand houses its single male workers at two different locations, in addition to the more than 20 rooms it rents at the Howard Johnson on Route 30 in Hammonton for married couples, women and children.

On a recent afternoon, DiMeo Jr. walked around the camp on Middle Road they call “The Red Schoolhouse” because of its color and design. Forty men sleep there in bunk beds, cook in an attached kitchen and play soccer in the backyard.

At this time of day, all the workers were in the field and the building was empty. Cowboy boots sat next to rumpled sheets, clothes lay on window sills and plastic fans stood all over the un-air-conditioned building.

“I wish the inspectors were here today, because I’ve never seen it this clean,” he said.

Inspectors recommended $900 in fines because of this building in 2005, reporting that spliced electrical wires were running to electronic equipment, creating a fire hazard, and that outdoor portable toilets were dirty and broken.

A mile and a half away on Laurel Road is Indian Brand’s other migrant camp, where two adjacent one-story buildings house another 70 workers. DiMeo Jr. calls it “Camp Blue,” but the workers simply call it “Azul,” the Spanish word for the color of the buildings.

Inspectors recommended $3,550 in fines at this camp in 2005 for 10 different violations, ranging from overcrowding, not spraying a nearby ditch to control for mosquitoes and not having first aid supplies available.

“It’s a busy time of year. I can’t keep an eye on everything,” DiMeo Jr.’s nephew Michael Jr. said in response to the list of abuses, the inspectors’ report states.

DiMeo Jr. said workers come and go on a daily basis, sometimes entering camps at night, not saying how long they will stay. He said some prefer to sleep on flat cardboard boxes on the floor because it is cooler but that inspectors “don’t buy that.”

On this afternoon, Aurelio Corona, 68, of the Mexican state of Nayarit, was the only person at the camp. In the little English he spoke, he said he cleans the camps six hours a day.

“Nobody wants violations,” DiMeo Jr. said, but he added that they inadvertently happen when all the harvesting takes place during a span of eight weeks.

DiMeo Jr. rode out to one of his fields, where Antonio Sandoval, 59, was the supervisor. Sandoval has worked for the family for about 30 years after moving to the area permanently from southern California.

“He’s like part of the family,” DiMeo said, and Sandoval’s gold teeth glinted in the sunlight as he smiled.

Sandoval is married with four children. His oldest daughter, Sonora, will be a senior this fall at William Paterson University in Wayne, Passaic County, and his son, Esteban, kicked two game-winning field goals last season for the Hammonton High School football team.

His wife, Felipa, also helps out at the farm, driving a box truck around the fields with supplies.

DiMeo said he wants to cooperate with the Labor Department but feels the investigations are incomplete and that inspectors too often assume things are wrong without seeking explanation from farm owners.

He said some inspectors show up in the fields and take notes about what they see without ever talking to the farmers, then send them violations months later.

“That’s why there’s a little frustration here,” he said. “Because even when you correct it, you don’t get credit for it.”

On the way back to his office, DiMeo Jr. passed rows of migrants walking along the side of roadways in northern Hammonton, heading from various camps to several different farms.

He said he knows that federal investigators have a job to do to control this bustling industry but wishes they would cooperate with farmers more.

“We do try and get out as much information as we can,” said Reilly, such as a news release in the spring announcing a broader scope of investigations this summer. “We would be very happy to go out and find no violations.”

Mechanized picking?

This year’s harvest was one of the hardest for blueberry growers in decades, with storms, frost and record-setting temperatures beginning and ending the season earlier than farmers wanted.

That meant that farms initially did not have enough workers, since many migrants now work their way through several southern states before coming to New Jersey and then north afterward to Maine and Michigan.

With states such as Georgia, Florida and North Carolina increasingly competing for available labor, states such as New Jersey that had near-monopolies for pickers have struggled to meet their needs.

“It used to be that New Jersey had a very distinct harvest window,” said Pavlis. “That just doesn’t exist anymore.”

Doyle is a state representative for the Highbush Blueberry Council, the governing body that oversees growers of the fruit’s most common variety. He has argued for a less-restrictive visiting-worker visa process that would allow Mexicans to more easily enter the country to help farmers.

Meanwhile, some people in the industry envision a future without human harvesters at all.

“Certainly the day will come when that’s the case, when the picking to the cleanup will all be mechanized” said Jeff McKibben, co-owner of BEI International, a company based in South Haven, Mich., that manufactures picking equipment.

McKibben said he has spent at least the past six years developing its newest model, the Black Ice Harvester, which uses a stream of air to shake berries off the bush to be collected in a pan below.

As opposed to machines that have historically beaten and shaken plants to wrest off the fruit, McKibben said air-picking leaves berries and bushes unharmed, producing a product of a similar quality to hand-picking.

“It would pick what it would take about 100 people to pick on a daily basis,” he said.

Each machine costs $160,000 to $220,000, depending on the model and features included. Only a few models have been available since it debuted on the market a year and a half ago, and McKibben said no farms in New Jersey have one.

But if labor is not available because of the country’s growing blueberry crop, those machines might become a necessity.

“If the labor’s not going to be available, something’s got to be done,” said Pavlis. “And it’s just a lot of headaches. A machine gives you a lot less headaches.”