Migrant workers who fuel Maine blueberry harvest receive state, federal services

David Whitney's blueberry company is employing about 70 migrant workers this blueberry harvest season.
Tim Cox | BDN
David Whitney's blueberry company is employing about 70 migrant workers this blueberry harvest season. Buy Photo
Posted Aug. 07, 2013, at 7:08 p.m.
A migrant worker carries empty boxes to other workers raking blueberries for Whitney Corp. in Jonesboro on Tuesday.
Tim Cox | BDN
A migrant worker carries empty boxes to other workers raking blueberries for Whitney Corp. in Jonesboro on Tuesday. Buy Photo

JONESBORO, Maine — Migrant workers from islands in the Caribbean Sea and elsewhere are a critical component of Maine’s annual wild blueberry harvest.

Even though blueberry production has come to rely more on mechanized equipment, there remains a need for laborers who rake and harvest the fruit by hand, according to growers.

The arrival of a significant migrant labor force in Washington County — the wild blueberry harvest began in earnest this week — also sets into motion an array of services by state and federal agencies as well as various nonprofit organizations.

Migrant workers “have become increasingly more important,” said Julie Rabinowitz, a spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Labor, and noted that about 1,000 of them are participating in the harvest.

Juan Perez-Febles, who has held the position of a federally funded state monitor advocate for 20 years, acts as a liaison between workers and employers. His duties include making sure employers know the legal requirements they must meet in regards to migrant workers.

A temporary center for these workers is housed in the town hall of Columbia. Various nonprofit organizations and government agencies have representatives stationed at the center in order to educate the workers about services they may receive, including food stamps, child care, health care and legal aid.

Surplus food is distributed from a semi-trailer in the parking lot, and a tractor-trailer load of fresh fruit and vegetables and dairy products was scheduled to be delivered from the South Portland-based Good Shepherd Food Bank Wednesday night — free for migrant workers.

Candace Austin with Maine Migrant Health Program, which stationed its mobile medical clinic in the parking lot, said more than 200 migrant workers passed through the center by 2 p.m. Wednesday.

“It’s the hub for the blueberry harvest,” said Austin, providing services and support for migrant workers for the initial two weeks before they get paid.

The center, which began operating Aug. 1 and will close Aug. 15, has functioned for about 12 years, noted Rabinowitz.

“The rakers center was a national model,” she said. “That’s something that works well and has been a model for other states.

The migrant workers who participate in the Maine blueberry harvest tend to be Hispanic, said Rabinowtiz, with a strong contingent from the Caribbean islands.

Starting in Texas or Florida, they follow the harvest of seasonal crops up the East Coast. When the blueberry harvest is over, some workers will return to the South, but others will continue seasonal work in Maine in the coming months.

“They’re highly coveted jobs,” said Perez-Febles, referring to blueberry raking.

Rakers earn piece rate wages, and the going rate is $2.25-$3.50 per box. A box of blueberries contains 23 pounds of fruit, and according to Rabinowitz, workers may earn $200 per day or more.

Providing housing is also a key component for growers who want to attract migrant workers, said Perez-Febles.

“If you don’t provide housing, you don’t get any workers,” he said.

David Whitney, who operates a blueberry business with harvesting operations throughout Washington County, agreed.

“That’s exactly right,” said Whitney, who this season employs about 70 migrant workers who live in a company camp on blueberry land in Jonesboro. “We’ve been investing heavily in our camps.”

Whitney’s crew of workers includes 35-40 Haitians and 10-15 Hispanics. Unlike blueberry farmers who rely on mechanized equipment, Whitney has “developed kind of a reverse niche.” So many growers have eliminated crews that rake by hand, but Whitney has bolstered his operations that rely on manual labor.

“When farms lay off crews … there are areas they can’t get to,” observed Whitney, whose company harvests blueberries on company-owned land, leased land and provides harvesting services to other growers. Whitney owns or leases about 400 acres and harvests for other growers on about another 100 acres.

“It’s going to be a good harvest,” said Whitney. “Not a bumper crop.”

While plentiful rain helped in July and early August, they were detrimental in the spring when the flowering blueberry bushes needed to be pollinated. Additionally, there was also some frost damage.

The Department of Labor also held three outreach events for migrant workers Aug. 5-7, in Deblois, Cherryfield and Mariaville. There was safety training related to working in the heat, dealing with heat stress, and federal investigators from the U.S. Department of Labor were on hand to give migrant workers information about regulations governing labor camp conditions, and their rights under wage and hour law. About 50 migrant workers attended Monday’s outreach event, and Tuesday’s drew about 65.

Perez-Febles distributed fliers about the outreach events, printed in English and Spanish, to migrant workers as he visited employers’ operations in the field.

“We’re out there,” said Rabinowitz. “We’re an advocate [to help any migrant worker out].”

Maine also operates a hotline for migrant workers, 888-307-9800, in Spanish and English.

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