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Crop pickers struggle after Florida freeze

In a small room, in a tiny Presbyterian mission in this agricultural town south of Tampa, about a dozen migrant workers sat patiently as one after another entered an office to ask a relief worker for help. The typically warm Florida weather was returning outside, but these workers were among the first in the state to have trouble finding crops to pick following what has here been called the worst freeze in this century. The cold snap, from Jan. 20-22, destroyed much of the state's citrus, strawberry, and vegetable crops.

``Everything's gone,'' says Claudio Hernandez through an interpreter. ``We were here to pick oranges, but they've stopped picking oranges. The strawberries don't look too promising. What we get to pick is smaller than normal, and it takes more to fill a tub.''

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These workers get paid by the number of tubs they fill. Mr. Hernandez says that one day he was able to fill three tubs. For that he got $15, and he spent $5 of that for gasoline to get to the job and $5 for lunch.

``We keep coming here for food,'' says Juan Ruiz, clutching an eviction notice in his hand. ``And we are looking around for work like transplanting tomatoes. We are lucky to get two or three hours of work a day.''

Grower organizations say there is still a lot of work for these people to do for at least the next two or three weeks as farmers try to salvage as much as possible before their crops rot in the fields.

``There's no shortage of work in citrus now,'' says Ernie Neff, a spokesman for Florida Citrus Mutual, an organization of grove owners. ``We're going full speed ahead. This stuff about a shortage of work now is untrue.''

That kind of talk makes people like Susan Ryan furious. She works with the migrants in Ruskin, and she says farm owners have not responded to their pleas to find work for the pickers.

``I called them [the farm-owner organizations],'' she says. ``I said, `please call us.' They tell me they want specific names of workers and places where they can be reached. They want us to send them across the state and to stay in motels for just a couple of days of work.''

Whether or not enough work exists now, farmers and migrant workers do agree that the freeze will mean a shortage of work for laborers beginning in about three weeks and lasting until late April.

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``This will delay the need for workers in the spring,'' says George Sorn, director of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.

Still, state and federal aid should be available for many of these workers by the time the salvaging operations cease, according to John Lindler, director of migrant labor for the state. Democratic Gov. Robert Graham has signed an executive order that will free up about $1.1 million in state aid to help provide emergency housing, food, and energy assistance.

The state also has asked the federal government to declare portions of Florida disaster areas, so that unemployment compensation regulations can be relaxed to provide assistance to farm workers who normally do not meet them.

But the plight of migrants during the freeze is just another example of how farm labor is exploited, say organizations who are seeking added rights for the workers.

No one knows how many farm workers Florida has. Mr. Lindler puts the number between 80,000 and 120,000, but concedes that range is disputable.

``We want to do more than direct services to these people,'' says Jayne Schroth, a minister with the Beth-El Presbyterian Mission in Ruskin. ``We want to be an advocate for them. But in a crisis, we have to spend our time meeting the present situation. We have to think more about this year rather than years down the road.''

But Ms. Schroth and other farm-worker rights groups are working for a better solution, that is, a good education for laborers so they will have the option of getting other kinds of jobs. They also want better hospitalization and unemployment benefits.

Even before the January freeze, the state government was studying ways to retrain farm workers in counties where the citrus industry was already dying after four hard freezes during the last five years.

``The oranges won't come back there,'' Mr. Lindler says. ``We're looking at what resources are available to the state to help these farm workers retrain for other jobs. There's not a whole lot of alternative employment in those areas.''

Warren Clark, a member of Florida Impact, an interfaith legislative action group that lobbies for social justice issues, says his group advocates legislation to get unemployment insurance for more farm workers. Nearly half, he says, are not currently insured.

Florida Impact also will be proposing a labor contractor bill designed to cut abuses it believes are created by the present system of crew leaders providing labor to farmers. Mr. Clark says that farmers currently have no responsibility for what happens between crew leaders and workers. They say the result is that workers often are financially abused.

If the bill were approved, Clark says the state government would provide more inspectors and farmers would be more responsible for keeping records now kept only by itinerate crew leaders.

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