A dispute over who should pick the apples in East Coast orchards yesterday left about 300 confused Puerto Ricans without jobs and living in Virginia and West Virginia motels at federal expenses.
The Puerto Ricans were the victims of a disagreement between apple growers, who would prefer to use Jamaicans, and the Labor Department, which has said the picking jobs should go to Puerto Ricans.
Growers had complained in federal court last week that they faced a shortage of pickers, but yesterday they were charging that the Labor Department's bungling had caused a glut of workers and said that jobs were no longer available in the orchards.
The East Coast crop was being picked by a combination of mainland, Jamaican, and Puerto Rican workers who had arrived earlier, growers said.
Labor officials countered that the growers - eager to protect their supply of experienced alien pickers - were intentionally sabotaging efforts to bring Puerto Rican workers into the orchards.
There were also reports that Puerto Rican workers were being fired in New York state orchards before they had a chance to prove to growers that they could learn to handle the long ladders and heavy buckets that are a picker's tools.
In Martinsburg, W. Va., 133 Puerto Ricans were being put up in the Holiday Inn, four to a room at a daily rate of about $20 per room. The money for their expenses was coming from federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act funds.
John R. Hancook, of the U.S. Employment Service, said the workers arrived to fill job orders submitted by the growers, but were being told there was no room in the work camps and no jobs available.
"My personal interpretation is that the growers are game planning us to avoid seeing what the Puerto Ricans can do," Hancock said. He said that the growers "are in complete violation" of laws requiring job preference for domestic workers, including Puerto Ricans, over Jamaicans and other aliens.
Leo Rosario Albert, a Puerto Rican worker from Ponce, said, "The growers have not come to see us. Everyone is upset. Right now we wait for somebody to explain to the people what to do because right now we don't know what to do."
In Winchester, Va., another 143 Puerto Rican workers were in motels, according to a Labor spokesman.
A Frederick County, Va., Fruit Growers Association spokesman said that Labor had been warned that the beds in the picking camps there were full before the Puerto Ricans arrived.
There are about 400 Jamaicans at the camp, about 250 mainland migrants and 200 Puerto Ricans now there with another 200 Jamaicans due on Thursday, the spokesman said.
Delmer Robinson, past president of the Virginia growers' association, said, "Labor stuck two new shipments of Puerto Ricans on us, but there is no housing for them."
He said the Puerto Ricans assigned to his orchard appear to be "just fair" workers who have not worked on farms before.
But Aaron Bodine, chief of the division of labor certification, said, "How can we be in a situation in which we have unemployed U.S. workers ready and on the scene and be bringing in foreign workers?"
Bodine said that the Puerto Rican government, concerned about the treatment of its workers, has halted further flights of workers from the island. He said workers who had been stopped before boarding flights for the U.S. had been extremely angry over being denied the work.
The Labor Department is now trying to place the Puerto Ricans in apple-picking jobs as they become available. There were some reports late yesterday that growers were accepting more of the Puerto Ricans, Bodine said.