THE MID-ATLANTIC Office of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and just released a study of the plight of several thousand agricultural laborers who work in mushroom camps in Delaware and Pennsylvania. The wretched living conditions of these people are not very different from those made familiar by numerous studies and stories on the plight of migrant workers that have appeared over the past 25 years hazardous health conditions, inadequate diets, high rates of illiteracy, unsafe and unsanitary housing, low wages - you've heard it all.
Does this mean there's been no progress in improving the lot of migrant workers? Not at all. What it does mean is that those who work in mushroom camps have not benefitted from the improvements. The chief reason is very odd. It is that mushroom workers don't fit into any of the bureaucratic definitions of persons who can benefit from certain programs. Evidently the responsible people can't agree on what these workers should be called. The commission study identifies a number of terms used by local, state and federal officials to describe them: migrants, stay-grants, or seasonal, industrial or agricultural workers. If the mushroom workers were classified under any one of these tags, they would be eligible for some of the benefits available to eother laborers, such as health care, unemployment compensation, minimum wage and public education. But they aren't.
The Department of Labor, which carries the greatest responsibility in this matter, should immediately come up with an adequate definition for mushroom workers that can be used throughout federal, state and local agencies. That's one way to get them some help and protection fast - even while the commission's recommendations for legislative action are being considered. No matter what you call it, the current situation shouldn't be allowed to go on.