The U.S. Labor Department has decided to let in roughly the same number of foreign pickers for this year's $180 million East Coast apple harvest as were approved last year, setting the number high enough to avoid lawsuits so far from growers but low enough for growers to complain of "possible disaster."
In Virginia - where the Winchester region is billed as the "Apple Capital of the World" - Lobor certified use of 1,130 foreign workers compared to the growers' request for 1,537.
Both sides describe as "less hostile" this year's collision between growers seeking highly motivated Jamaican workers and the Labor Department which wants to put Americans in the jobs.
Last year, worker levels were decided only after a series of federal court decisions, as Labor officials and growers traded charges of bad faith.
Delmer Robinson, last year's president of the Frederick County (Va.) Fruit Growers Association, said, "We have had very little open confrontation. It's a hell of a lot better than last year."
And Charles B. Knapp, special assistant to Labor Secretary Ray Marshall, said, "I think there has been more of a spirit of cooperation this year. We are hopeful the growers will be pleased, but usually they are not."
The use of foreign farm workers to harvest U.S. crops has been highly controversial, especially during times of high domestic unemployment.
The growers, who use local workers, U.S. migrants and foreigners, generally favor the Jamaicans as a more disciplined, harder working force. These highly skilled pickers often earn far more than the $2.71 an hour minimum wage and can save up to $2,000 in a picking season, a significant stake for a foreign worker.
But according to law, the growers can use foreigners only if the Labor Department cannot find U.S. workers, including Puerto Ricans.
Efforts by Labor to expand the use of Americans the last two years met increasing growers resistance and the breakdown of relations last year when the numbers were finally set by federal courts.
This year worker recruitment and foreign certification were conducted under new regulations that appear to have eased hostility. Growers submitted their requests 80 days before they wanted workers on hand and Labor was required to act on the requests within 60 days, leaving a 20-day margin for appeal before the harvest begins just after Labor Day.
The 60-day periods began to run out on Monday and most Virginia growers have now been notified of Labor's decision for their orchards.
The Frederick County growers, who use more than 90 percent of the foreign workers in Virginia, are still studying the Labor notices, but an official said he hopes law suits could be avoided and that the work force appeared to be adequate.
The growers, however, remain skeptical about Puerto Rican workers, citing events of two years ago when more than 75 percent of the Puerto Ricans brought in left the orchards within 10 days. As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans are free to leave whenever they choose and go where ever they choose. A Jamaican who left his job would legally be required to leave the United States.
The Labor Department is planning to bring in about 1,000 Puerto Ricans and is still recruiting there, while lawyers for growers' associations are questioning the complex legal situation which has applied to Puerto Ricans because of the island's laws governing workers coming to the mainland.
With the growers maintaining an uneasy quiet over the picker quotas, Labor Secretary Marshall said, "I hope we can get through this year without the lawsuits and other problems we have had in the past. As always we are attempting to respond to the legitimate interests of both workers and growers."
Knapp said the department was attempting this year to insure the quality of Puerto Rican workers and the relative calm was not the result of any effort to please the growers.
"Our first priority was to pick U.S. workers," he said. "But the one conscious change was that we made it clear that we were going to cut off all the scar tissue from the past" and try to start over in relations with the growers.