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Florida chill puts freeze on migrant jobs

Maria Sanchez retreated into a back office as problems came elbowing into the tiny building of the Farmworkers Rights Organization in this south-central Florida farming community.

A steady, cold drizzle was falling outside as farmworkers who had lost their jobs in the sudden freeze during the Christmas holiday jammed into the organization's door in hopes of finding a blanket, some warm clothes, or some food.

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Temporary harvesting jobs were still available statewide as many farmers and grove owners tried to salvage as much of their fruits and vegetables as possible before the produce began to rot in the fields.

But some farmworkers were already beginning to feel the squeeze less than a week after the freeze struck.

''This is just the beginning,'' said Ms. Sanchez, who heads the small organization that was set up to help protect farmworkers. ''Right now this is chaos. Later it will be a catastrophe.''

Ms. Sanchez was trying to help people like Reba Mason, a young migrant worker who sat in the office's crowded, unlighted hall, clutching her three-month-old son in a thin, dirty blanket as she watched two toddlers play barefoot on the cold floor.

She was one of 14 people - nine adults and five children - in her family who had driven a bus to Immokalee from their home in Alabama because they had heard jobs picking fruit and vegetables were plentiful.

They arrived Dec. 23, two days before a freeze killed a large part of the crops they had planned to pick.

Now, they had traveled far, the bus was out of gas, they had spent all their money, they could find no work, and they were down to about the last bottle of milk for the children.

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With rain falling outside as more cold weather approached, and no place for them to sleep but aboard the unheated bus, Reba Mason was getting desperate, and one of her final hopes was the Farmworkers Rights office.

''We went to the store where they pick up people for work,'' she said, ''but they told us they had all the workers they needed. We heard there was work in Orlando, and we thought if we came here they would help us with the gas so we could get there.

''But they told us they have no money to help nobody,'' she said. ''The people who have money to get to the jobs are gone, and we're stranded.''

Usually this is the height of the agricultural season in Florida as citrus ripens and vegetables and fruit lie ready to be picked for Northern markets. But now, once the usable produce is salvaged from the fields and groves, the farmworkers will have between eight and 10 weeks of unemployment before new crops ripen.

Ms. Sanchez said many of the workers will not be able to qualify for unemployment insurance because the law requires proof that they had worked during the past 20 weeks. Many of the workers do not have that proof.

In past severe freezes, the federal government has declared parts of the state a disaster area, and the unemployed workers have been able to get federal aid within a week or two, she said. But this time, a disaster declaration does not appear likely.

''Some of them are facing eviction notices, others are piling up in homes with other family members or friends,'' she said. ''Many are just staying out in the woods or in unheated trailers.''

The Immokalee Neighborhood Services will provide each family one time with cooking gas and $30 toward food or rent, she said, and the Roman Catholic Church is doing what it can.

But those donations do not go far.

''We're just playing basketball with these people,'' she said, ''tossing them back and forth to different service agencies, hoping that they will find what they need.''

She said her office needed mainly children's warm clothes and more blankets, as well as private donations to help her buy more food and to provide some of the essentials these people need.

Laborers were waiting when the office opened at 9 a.m. For the volunteers manning the desks and phones, the day was one long blur of tussling and jostling. And people still were crowding in at 6:30 p.m.

''A lot of these families are going to go through a lot of suffering and a lot of hunger,'' Ms. Sanchez said.

''We will do what we can and hope that they will be able to pull themselves through.''

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