They do the work we won't

WILLARD Americans are no strangers to hard work. Research shows Americans work longer
Cory Frolik
May 24, 2010

 

WILLARD

Americans are no strangers to hard work.

Research shows Americans work longer hours and take fewer vacation days than residents of other industrialized nations.

According to America.gov, the United States is the only nation with an advanced economy that does not require employers to provide a minimum number of paid vacation days.

But even in this troubled economy -- in which double-digit unemployment plagues several counties in the area -- there are some jobs that even hard-working Americans simply will no longer do.

Field work is one of them, and Ben Wiers, 47, can hardly blame them for this.

The vice president of field operations with Wiers Farm said he grew up cutting lettuce on his family's farm and knows how exhausting and relentless the job can be.

"There's nothing easy about any of these jobs," he said.

The hours are long, the pay unexceptional.

The work is physically demanding, and yet there's no overtime. There are no holidays, and the workweek is six days long.

And then there's the weather.

In late summer, the hot sun sat in the cloudless sky, baking workers as they traipsed through the fields.

Sweat beaded and dripped from workers' brows.

The men wiped their foreheads with their sleeves every few minutes to keep the perspiration from getting in their eyes.

But migrant farm workers -- most from Mexico, Texas and other scorching areas -- like the heat. It's the cold they can't stand.

Eight weeks after boiling weather, the temperature plunged into the low 50s.

Workers were bundled up in sweatshirts and shivered as they tore peppers from their vines. The men balled their hands in fists and blew into them, trying to keep their fingers from going numb.

Once upon a time, the faces in the fields weren't so uniformly Hispanic. Many local people did the jobs migrant farm workers now dominate.

Founded in 1896, Wiers Farm began with only 5 acres of farmland -- a distant cry from the several thousand acres of soil they farm now, producing 40 varieties of vegetables, ranging from cucumber to bell pepper to sweet corn to cilantro.

Before the farm started producing vine crops, it relied on high school students and locals to provide much of the labor force needed.

But as the company's business model changed, its labor needs changed, too.

High school and college students head back to school when late August rolls around, which is the farm's peak harvest time.

"You can't fill these jobs locally anymore," Wiers said. "August and September is when the volume hits, so we can't afford to lose our work force once our harvest becomes heavy."

But it's not just that the operation's labor needs are different. The pool of local workers, who once viewed field work as an attractive employment option, have since changed their minds.

Wiers said the shift in mind-set is largely attributable to the growing opportunities for young people to work at fast-food chains, retail stores and restaurants -- jobs with comparable pay that ask far less of employees.

Elena Glyda, bilingual customer service representative with the Sandusky County Job Store, likes to tell a story that took place in 2005, when Job and Family Services arranged the hiring of five local residents to do field work in Huron County.

The residents -- between the ages of 17 and 21 -- said they were desperate for work and would do anything, no matter how hard, to earn a weekly paycheck.

The group showed up on time for their first day of work. They were assigned the duty of hoeing weeds in a cabbage field.

About 20 minutes in, the group unanimously decided this was no way to spend a summer.

They ditched the job and left their hoes lying in the dirt.

"The farmer called us back and asked us to send him workers because those ones left," Glyda said.

Glyda said she wished locals were more willing to do field work, because there is a large amount of it, even in these precarious economic times.

But she said the only people still willing to do this kind of labor are the same people who have always been willing to do it -- migrants.

"Workers have been coming on their own for years. Their parents came. Then they come. Then their kids come," Glyda said. "It's a generational thing."