The Labor Department will begin distributing names of 2,300 available domestic laborers to apple growers in Virginia and eight other Eastern states today in a last-minute effort to hold down the number of foreign pickers brought in for the fall harvest, labor officials said.
A list of Puerto Ricans, who are classified as U.S. workers, was sent to New York yesterday, for transmission to apple growers who are seeking pickers for the harvest. The list of available workers arrived only hours after a labor Department spokesman had erroneously announced that the department had been informed the Puerto Rican government would not cooperate in providing farm workers to the mainland.
Labor officials said they were unable yesterday to pinpoint the source of the incorrect information supplied to the department that no Puerto Rican workers would be allowed to participate in the mainland harvest. The false report apparently stemmed from an internal Puerto Rican dispute over whether to accept U.S. migrant worker protection standards, or insist on more stringent Puerto Rican standards, a Labor Department official said.
Puerto Rican government representatives said yesterday that they were cooperating fully in the farm worker program.
The availability of Puerto Ricans creates the possibility of a race to the orchards between domestic and foreign workers.
On Tuesday, the Labor Department, under an order from U.S. District Judge James C. Turk, certified the nted for about 5,000 alien farm workers, the first of whom are expected to arrive this weekend from Jamaica. The Labor Department had argued that only about 2,200 foreign workers were needed, with the rest being hired from among U.S. citizens.
Turk, of the western district of Virginia, made his ruling after the Frederick County (Va.) fruit growers association argued that growers faced economic loss if alien workers were not cleared for entry immediately by the Labor Department.
Labor Secretary Ray Marshall said the holding "set an alarming precedent that will undercut the ability of the Labor Department to control the importation of foreign workers.
Bert Lewis, director of the U.S. Employment Service, said, "We'll have to pursue the legal issues in the court even if it is after the fact. We can't live with the precedent of the Turk decision."
Lewis said that by Tuesday "there should be lots of Jamaicans here. By regulation the growers are obligated to take domestic workers even if foreign workers are already in the orchard.
"But our concern is this - what happens when you have a camp with 150 Jamaicans and a U.S. crew comes in with 30 workers? You got a touchy situation. I'm concerned about avoiding conflict.
"We'll continue to recruit U.S. workers but we want to avoid tense situations," Lewis said.
Delmer Robinson, president of the Frederick County group said, "If they have available Puerto Rican workers we will be glad to have them, particularly if they are good workers. If the Labor Department has 2,300 qualified apple pickers - we couldn't be happier."
Robinson said the Jamaican pickers will be arriving over a two-week period, allowing time to interview and hire Puerto Rican and mainland workers without conflict.
"If they can pick apples we'll hire them," he said. "But we're not required to hire bodies, we're required to hire apple pickers.
"We hope they are qualified and able so that we'll have a deomestic source of workers we can depend for years to come," Robinson said.
Lewis, commenting on the summer-long series of court battles with the apple growers that led to the Turk decision, said, "We would hope next year we could go back to the more cooperative arrangement that we had with the growers in past years."
"I hope they make every effort to do that," Robinson said.