It’s the Jobs, Stupid

Published on: 14:05PM Jun 05, 2009

Even though President Obama has postponed the immigration summit meeting initially scheduled for next week, he and the rest of Congress know they’ve got to make some progress soon on one of the most pressing domestic policy challenges they – and the nation – face.


So it was good timing this week that NMPF unveiled an economic study a year in the making, outlining the labor and hiring practices on dairy farms across the country.  The bottom line: absent sane labor policies, including rational reform of our immigration laws, the jobs of not just foreign laborers, but of American-born workers as well, are at grave risk.


The survey was conducted by the Texas AgriLife Research center, a component of Texas A&M University.  You can download a copy of the survey here.


The analysis found that contrary to the notion that dairies pay piddling, under the table wages, they actually pay above-minimum wage rates, around $10/hr.  And when you factor in the series of common benefits (housing, food, transportation, insurance) that go with the base salary, our dairy workers average around $31k per year.  Not a huge amount, but not slave wages, either.


The real issue, though, is that farms all across the country employ immigrant workers.  Of the 138,000 full-time equivalent workers that were estimated to work on dairies in 2008, 57,000 – or 41% - were foreigners.  And if farms didn’t have those workers, those farms, and the everyone who depends economically on those farms, would be in jeopardy. 


So the question isn’t can we, or should we, purge every suspected illegal alien from working in the food business.  That was never a realistic possibility, if only for the logistical impossibility of sending 10 million people back to wherever they came from.  No, the real question is would we further damage our economy in the process of this kind of a pyrrhic, punitive purge.


I’ve heard many stories from dairy farmers about the difficulties of hiring dependable workers, and invariably, the story is the same:  I couldn't get the cows milked if I had to rely solely on the native-born local workforce.  It’s no secret the dairy farming is hard work – I blogged earlier this year about it being the second-hardest job in America.


Because of the perennial, all-weather nature of farming, many Americans don’t want to do it, even if they have to work for less money elsewhere.  But the work needs to be done by those who still want to work hard.  And if we get rid of them, a whole bunch of jobs tied to farming, from feed, to veterinary, to transportation, to processing…those jobs go away, too.  Such are the stakes when the White House does decide how to proceed with answering the question of how can we economically, legally and morally address the imbalance between the demand for the jobs we have, with the supply of workers we have…or don’t.