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A grim reaping

by and


On a sweltering July evening, three days before the nation celebrated life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, more than 100 people gathered in an asphalt parking lot to commemorate the passing of an era. To the bilingual strains of "We Shall Overcome" ("Venceremos"), the assembled raised their voices to honor Lake Apopka farmworkers past and present.

The diverse crowd of farmworkers and their families, social justice advocates, college students and community members listened to heartfelt testimonials of those who labored in the fields and packing houses for the last time on June 30. Margie Lee Pitter, who's spent 30 years on the farms, spoke plainly: "I had joy and hard times. I will miss the people I worked with, the workers who gave me lots of respect." Don Layo Garza, who worked the muck for 17 years said, "I had a job and benefits; now, it's a disaster for me."

The ceremony, called "Remembering the Last Harvest," was organized by the Farmworker Association of Florida (FWAF). In addition to the personal narratives, song and prayer, the evening included workers' theater -- a cautionary dramatization about labor exploitation, environmental abuse and "the people [who] are bought with money." Word circulated that Long and Zellwin farms -- two of the enterprises whose shutdown leaves the workers with no job to return to -- had offered to throw a party for their employees, but few appeared to be in a festive mood.

Explained former Zellwin worker Jose Barrera: "My spirit and morale are low. The only check I got was for the hours owed me -- no severance pay, no ‘good luck,' no nothing." And Zellwin's offer had been "you bring the food, we'll bring the drinks."

No more corn or carrots, lettuce or celery, radishes or cabbage will be harvested on Lake Apopka farmland. In 1996, the state and federal governments agreed to pay landowners $91 million for a 14,000-acre buyout as part of a plan to clean up the lake. But while the property owners who proposed the buyout reap the immediate rewards, the laborers who worked the farmland for half a century are left without much ground to stand on. "A dilemma in our community has been solved in a way that doesn't benefit the workers," said Sister Ann Kendrick, addressing the crowd at the memorial.

Agribusiness saw the writing on the wall and read it well. Increasing environmental regulation coupled with the "afta NAFTA" fallout convinced farm owners to get out while they could.

Florida farmland is decreasing 5 percent per year, and it's estimated all agriculture in the state could disappear within 20 years. Meanwhile, a reclaimed Lake Apopka promised to boost property values with potential housing and resort development. In a textbook case of plural elitism, farm owners responsible for polluting the lake and activists promoting its restoration found themselves in the same boat. Remarked one of the latter: "Farmers should send us on a cruise to the Bahamas for what we did for them."

But there will be no cruises for the displaced. The buyout put more than 2,500 farmworkers out on the street; perhaps 10,000 lives actually are affected. "The company came out pretty good," said Barrera. "They got the money, can go elsewhere and continue their business. ... I would have liked to have gotten a share of the money available ... ."

Even before June 30, as many as 20 laid-off workers a week were showing up at the FWAF office for help. Jeannie Economos, coordinator for the association's Lake Apopka project, expects those numbers to increase through the summer.

So far the state has earmarked $200,000 for job retraining, an average of between $80-$100 per worker. Also, the state has designated some money raised from the sale of farm equipment for economic redevelopment; a percentage may go toward job retraining. Enterprise Florida, a public-private venture promoting economic growth, spent $20,000 to purchase computers so farmworkers could search the Internet for new jobs.

In the 1997 session of the Florida Legislature, State Rep. Bob Sindler successfully pushed for an enterprise zone to promote business development in the affected area, which Sindler represents; in the 1998 session, he secured tuition waivers for farmworkers who enroll in community and technical colleges. Unfortunately, at the present time, farmworkers are not eligible for housing relocation assistance through the federal Uniform Relocation Act.

FWAF, a grass-roots nonprofit organization of 6,500 Haitian, Hispanic, and African-American farmworkers, responded to the impending crisis by establishing its own Lake Apopka project. The association has been coordinating efforts to connect displaced farmworkers to service agencies and employers. Several Vista volunteers have assisted. More recently, a local jobs and benefits outreach worker has been assigned to the farmworkers office, and tentative plans call for assessment centers in Apopka, Zellwood and Tavares.

But the needs are not all the same. One of the first hurdles is unemployment compensation. Consider Hector and Maria Herrera, who have been working for Duda farms for 10 years. They were laid off three weeks prior to the farms' closing, received $800 severance pay, and were told to be out of their company housing by July 12. Yet in the aftermath of the tornadoes this year, they had not been able to work enough hours during the recent harvesting season to qualify for unemployment. They have three children, ages 6, 8 and 11.

At the Zellwin Farms El Poso labor camp, 10 to 15 families were notified to either vacate the premises by this week or face increased rents from new owners. The option of paying double or even triple the rent is hardly feasible for unemployed workers. And the units are in dire need of repair.

Some workers do not understand English. Manuel Medina, a documented worker from Durango, Mexico, has been working for Zellwin Farms for the last five years. He and his wife, Tita, speak no English. He says he is "confused." He signed papers at Zellwin on June 15 to apply for unemployment, and he says the company promised retraining. (Calls to Zellwin seeking comment for this article were not returned.)

Add to the Medinas' situation recent changes in the unemployment system. Now, those who are out of work must call the unemployment office with an identification number to begin the process. But many non-English speakers are intimidated by the English-first recorded phone messages they hear when they call.

With help from FWAF, Medina finally will get his unemployment compensation started, but only after having lost several weeks of it, and at a rate of $118 a week instead of $170 a week -- all because he didn't call. Meanwhile, he wonders how he will meet the next mortgage payment on the house he's purchasing.

Workers at Duda's Zellwood farming operation also have signed papers. They say they were told that the forms they signed would enable the longtime workers to receive profit-sharing monies from the company. According to the farmworker association, however, the documents state that workers are leaving the farms voluntarily; signing such a paper would prevent workers from qualifying for unemployment.

Duda spokesperson Susan Howard denied the charge. "Nothing that any employee signed would waive their right to unemployment," she says. Moreover, she says, Duda distributed a letter to workers encouraging them to seek compensation.

Orange County District 4 Commissioner Tom Staley, who represents the area, says, "There's plenty of jobs." And at the recent job fair held jointly by the Apopka Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Jobs and Benefits Agency, several hundred opportunities were on display. Openings included those in plant nurseries, hotels, landscaping, sheet metal, recycling, railroad, veterinary and construction.

Overlooked, however, are transportation needs. In the past, farmworkers who often lived near one another and worked at the same locations could carpool. As communities disperse, personal means of travel are required -- and, just as often, unavailable.

Meantime, at the farmworkers commemorative ceremony, Barrera thanked the "people who remember us and treat us with respect and dignity and think our work is worthwhile."

In this spirit, the farmworkers association, in partnership with the Crealdé School of Art in Winter Park, has spent the past year documenting the last harvest in photographs. The Florida Humanities Council and Florida Folklore Society are helping to fund an exhibit relating farmworker history that will begin traveling in the fall. The narratives will come from farmworkers themselves -- people such as Magaline Duncan, a 29-year veteran of the fields who remembers when "we were making money for these guys [the owners] and they weren't paying us anything. The men were paid $2.10 an hour. They were paid more than women, so I worked piece rate to earn more."

Added another worker, Layo Garza: "We didn't know who the real bosses were; they didn't show their faces."

He observed further: "People [still] don't know what's really happening. This is the normal time when we're out of work. In September, when we [would normally] come back, is when we'll realize what has happened."

Jeannie Economos concurs. "This is just the tip of the iceberg. ... our goal remains -- to empower workers to respond to and gain control over the social, political, economic and workplace issues that affect them."

To help, contact the Farmworker Association of Florida office in Apopka, (407) 886-5151.


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