U.S. employers took a break from their hiring spree last month, prompting concerns of an economic slowdown.
The Labor Department reported Friday that employers added just 88,000 workers to their payrolls in March. Though positive, that’s less than half of the previous 6-month average of 196,000 and it’s the weakest pace of job creation in nine months.
The national unemployment rate ticked down one-tenth of a point to 7.6 percent. That’s its lowest level in four years, but the figure only declined because more people stopped looking for work.
And the percentage of working-age adults with a job or looking for one -- known technically as the “labor force participation rate” -- fell to 63.3 percent in March, in its worst performance in more than 30 years.
Stocks reacted bearishly to the disappointing payroll numbers with the Dow Jones dropping 100 points early in the session before recovering about half its losses, while the S&P 500 also beat a hasty retreat in the wake of Fridays report.
A couple of places where employers ARE TRYING desperately to expand their labor force are the fields and groves that produce much of America’s fruit and vegetables.
Many -- if not most -- farm workers are undocumented immigrants. Demand for the largely unseen labor force is highly seasonal, and most of the jobs attract virtually no competition from native-born workers.
Plans to reform U.S. immigration policy for the first time in 27 years could reach the Senate floor by May. But hammering- out a deal for the farm workers who harvest the majority of U.S. fruits and vegetables could prove to be elusive.
Sweeping immigration reforms taking shape in the Senate are expected to include an overhaul of the agricultural worker program to create a steady supply of labor in the fields.
It’s believed by many that agriculture -- more than any other industry --depends on a workforce comprised, largely, of laborers who have entered the nation illegally.
Under the proposal, those farm workers already in the United States would get a speedier path to legal status than other undocumented immigrants.
Changes to the current visa program would make it easier for foreign workers to move to the U.S. Policymakers aim to install the documented workers in place of the half or more of the nation's farm labor workforce estimated to be in the country illegally.
Negotiators have been working to finalize an agreement in time for the measure to be included in bipartisan legislation expected to be released next week, but wages and the total number of visas are proving to be thorny issues.
Labor groups accuse growers of pushing to lower farm worker wages, by increasing the number of workers allowed to enter the country. Growers, however, argue their industry’s viability depends on a strong new supply of labor.
Officials with the American Farm Bureau echoed that sentiment, saying: "It comes down to either we're importing our labor or we're importing our food, and if we don't have access to a legal supply of labor we will start going offshore."
While much of the rhetoric surrounding immigration has focused on securing the border, creating a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally, and designing a new visa program for workers has garnered little public attention.
But for states from California to Florida with booming agricultural industries, it's a critical part of the puzzle.
According to labor and industry estimates, 50 to 80 percent of America’s farm workers are undocumented. Growers say they need a better way to hire workers legally, and advocates say workers can be exploited and need better protections and a way to earn permanent residence.
But officials with the United Farm Workers, an advocacy group founded by the late Cesar Chavez in the 1960s, say immigration reforms benefit the entire industry. UFW officials insist, "One thing that we know is that there's not an industry that will benefit more from a new immigration program than agriculture. The problem is the industry needs people who are both willing and able to do the work. And it's difficult work."
Currently, there is a 10-month visa program for farm workers, called the H2A visa, but growers argue it's so cumbersome that once they've completed the paperwork whatever crop they needed picked may well have withered.
About 55,000 H2A visas were issued in 2011. But that’s less than 3 percent of the nation's approximately 2 million farm workers.
The last major immigration overhaul took place in 1986, but it failed to establish a workable visa program for farm workers.