When we came here, they were supposed to give us work," Efraim Acebedo said bitterly. "Now they say there is no work."
Acebedo is one of 600 unemployed Puerto Rican farmworkers who have been caught for a week in the middle of a struggle between the U.S. Labor Department and the men who grow the multimillion dollar apple crop in the rolling hills from her to West Virginia and Maryland.
Acebedo was flown from Puerto Rico last week after being recruited by government representatives using work orders filed by the growers. The recruiting program is funded under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA).
And like the others, when he arrived, Acebedo found that local growers refused to hire him.
Now, while the Labor Department wrangles with the growers to force them to hire Puerto Ricans instead of the Jamaicans traditionally employed here, Acebedo is stranded here without a job.
The Labor Department is paying for his food and loding, but Acebedo has run out of spending money. He doesn't have enough to buy even a pack of cigarettes.
Meanwhile, the battle over his job continues. The Labor Department says the growers must hire Puerto Ricans because they are U.S. critizens. The growers, who make no secret of their preference for Jamaicans, and even send a recruiter to Jamaica each year, are resisting.
"We've been using Jamaican workers for years," one grower said. "This is nothing new. They're experienced. Some of them have been with us for 17 years."
Politicians have criticized both the Labor Department and the Puerto Ricans. Sen. Jennings Randolph (D-W.Va.) accused the department of "dumping" the workers in the region without proper planning. Virginia's Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, John W. Warner, yesterday defended the Jamaicans, saying they were three times as efficient as the inexperienced Puerto Ricans.
The 70 Puerto Ricans sent to Maryland eventually got full-time jobs picking for the season, but for the rest, it has been a frustrating wait. At least 210 have persuaded the Labor Department to fly them home. Two flights carrying 41 left yesterday. Others, lost in a strange land where the language is foreign, say they want to go.
One would-be picker, persuaded the manager of the Martinsburg, W.Va., Holiday Inn, where he was staying to hire him as a dishwater.
The complex dispute between government and growers centers on a federal law that requires growers who hire foreigners to employ also any able-bodied U.S. citizen who applies for work for at least half the harvest.
There is one quirk, however. A law passed to protest Puerto Ricans from exploitation says that growers who hire them must contract for their services directly with the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.But, because unemployment on the island hovers at nearly 20 percent by official estimates, the governor of Puerto Rico this year suspended that law, Public Law 87, in the cases of many growers.
Last week John Tilelli, an official from the Philadelphia office of the Labor Department's Employment and Training Administration, angrily waved the pages of an official form submitted by the Tri-County labor Camp Inc. of Martinsburg, W.Va. It was dated June 16 and said that Tri-County, which supplies workers to a number of farms in the Martinsbug area, would need 508 workers for a two-month harvest beginning Sept. 5. The work order, said Tilelli, is the reason that the Puerto Ricans were flown in by the Labor Department.
"They can't cancel that order if they are bringing foreign workers in," he said.
But Tri-County, which does hire Jamaicans, has refused to hire any Puerto Ricans.
"It was all kinds of excuses," said the gravel-voiced Tilelli. "The crop wasn't ready, they were still picking peaches, their housing was full. But it's only excuses. You can't get a clear answer."
Russell Pitzer, manager of Tri-County disagrees. He said the reason he hired no Puerto Ricans from the Labor Department was Public Law 87, the one that requires growers to hire workers by dealing exclusively with the Puerto Rican government.
"For some reason or other, Tri-County was never exempted," he said. "We are not prejudiced against Puerto Ricans."
Reminded that the Labor Department recently sent him a Mailgram informing him that Tri-County was, in fact, exempt. Pitzer conceded that he had actually been notified twice.
But, he said, since the notification came from the U.S. Labor Department and not directly from the Puerto Rican government, his lawyer had advised him that the notification might not be sufficient.
Of the 400 Puerto Ricans brought to Virginia to work, more than 75 persuaded the Labor Department to send them home after several days without work or pay and other have moved to places like New York City, where they have relatives. More than 100 are waiting to fly home after being rejected for jobs or fired after what the growers say is a three-day trial period.
The rest are staying at a labor camp run by the Frederick County Fruit Growers Association in Winchester, working through a trial period.
"Our intention is to obey the law," says Delmer Robinson, former president of the growers association. We haven't turned anyone down who wants work."
But the Puerto Ricans tell another story.
Humberto Vega, 32, a Vietnam veteran, said he was rejected for work because he was allegedly too frail. Vega's barrel-chested Puerto Rican companion, who calls himself Benjamin Franklin, said he was turned down because he was too short.
Thursday, Vega said, the growers offered trial periods to only 28 of more than 100 applicants.
"The ones that were left were mad," he said. "Now we are jumping from hotel to hotel, a lot of guys have lost their luggage, and we're just frustrated."