East Coast apple growers won a major victory in their fight to avoid using Puerto Rican workers Tuesday when a federal judge ardered the U.S. Labor Department to admit 1,030 additonal Jamaican pickers.
The growers had argued that the Puerto Ricans, who as U.S. citizens have job priority over allens, could not be depended on and that the orchards could suffer $20 million in crop losses if the Jamaicans - whom the growers contend are more stable and efficient - were not granted clearance.
Labor Department officials, who already had certified more alien workers for this year's $250 million crop than the growers asked for last year, said they will appeal the decision and, so far, have refused to comply with the order.
U.S. District Court Judge James C. Turk, who issued a similar order last year, has set a hearing Saturday in Roanoke at which Labor Secretary Ray Marshall could be held in contempt of court if the department has failed to comply with Turk's order.
The order applies to Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia and New York, the states in which the Labor Department has placed Puerto Rican workers. Virginia growers had asked for 1,537 aliens this year and 1,130 had been approved. Last year the Virginia growers asked for 922 aliens and actually used 578.
Turk, in issuing the order late Tuesday night, said, "These apples are ripe and begging to be picked and here we are fooling around with government red tape and the apples are going to waste."
He said that his decision would not harm the Puerto Ricans since those available will still get preference over aliens.
But a Labor official said the court order might trigger "a race for beds" as the growers seek to fill their work camps with Jamaicans before Puerto Ricans arrive.
The growers say they have had problems with Puerto Ricans who, unlike the Jamaicans are free to move about freely in the United States and in some cases have not been experienced farm workers.
Labor officials, however, say they are working hard to insure the quality or the Puerto Rican workers this year.
The growers are fighting the Puerto Ricans because "they represent the greatest threat to the offshore labor. We potentially have enough Puerto Ricans to pick all the apples on the East Coast," the Labor official said.