A dozen young men from Puerto Rico sat in the old house on Lamont Street NW looking almost lost. They were some of the last remnants of nearly 1,000 Puerto Ricans flown to the East Coast earlier this month to pick apples.
Recruited by the U.S. Department of Labor with promise of training, they had signed contracts. Though they expected to earn only $2.82 an hour, coming from an island where the unemployment rate hovers at 20 percent it seemed worth the journey.
Instead of jobs, however, they had found only a mase of bureaucratic contradictions. Having earned virtually nothing for their efforts here, some of the pickers are left with an uncertain future and few options.
Though the government wanted them to work in the orchards, the growers - long accustomed to importing Jamaican pickers - did not.
For the short run, at least, the growers appear to have won.
According to the Labor Department, only about 200 Puerto Ricans are still picking apples. More than 550, who were either refused admittance to the orchards or fired after only a few days, have returned home. A handful are in hospitals or in jail or looking for nonagricultural work here, 150 are officially unaccounted for, and the 12 living on Lamont Street have come to Washington to seek some solution or redress from the snarled system that brought them here. The total cost to the taxpayer so far is $255,815. The picking season is not yet half over.
The growers are required to reimburse the government for the substantial transportation costs if they keep the Puerto Ricans working for 15 days, but most have avoided that.
"It's a real mess," said one spokeswomen for the Labor Department. She said that agency employes have been interviewing the workers to find out just what happened. "They got some pretty short shrift from some of the growers," she said.
Baltasar Corrada, Puerto Rico's nonvoting representative in Congress, has meanwhile called for an investigation of the affair. His administrative assistant, Jose Delvalle, said suits will be filed against the growers. Some new legislative action is also being considered.
At the heart of the problem is a special exception to the immigration laws that allows employers to import foreign workers if not enough willing and able U.S. citizens can be found.
Under this provision, the apple growers of New York and Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia have been importing Jamaican pickers for decades, repeatedly asserting that they are more reliable, experienced and harder workers than the Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens.
Opponents of the foreign pickers contend, however, that they are more easily exploited than Americans.
As always, the line between industriousness and exploitation is hard to determine, but a number of Puerto Ricans, as well as representatives from the National Association of Farmworkers Organizations and the American Friends Service Committee who have been working with them, contend they were never given a chance.
Luis Sanabria told a reporter Monday night that he picked more than his quota of 60 bushels a day for the two days he was allowed to work on a farm near Winchester, Va. On the third day, however, he and the other Puerto Ricans were fired, he said, without explanation. He net pay was $17.80.
Jose Sanchez, another of the Puerto Ricans who have come of Washington, said he was kept waiting four days on a New York farm before he was allowed out in the orchards to pick apples. Once there he and 24 other Puerto Ricans were told they wouldbe paid by the box, but were supplied with only seven boxes, and those soon ran out. Before they were brought adequate replacements, said Sanchez, they were all fired for not meeting quotas.
As he was picking up his $10 pay check, Sanchez said a new group of Jamaicans were arriving to start work.