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Doing a job on the farmworkers



Orlando's own legislative power trust, Rep. Dan Webster and Sen. Toni Jennings, posed last week with cardboard enlargements of the $50 rebate checks that Florida homeowners will receive as part of the bulging multimillion-dollar bag of goodies folded into the $45.3 billion state budget.

With re-election on many of their minds, the legislators' underlying message was clear: There was something for virtually everyone in this fiscal package -- everyone, that is, except the families of as many as 2,500 farmworkers soon to lose their jobs with the state and federal buyout of the muck farms around Lake Apopka.

During the recently completed legislative session, Rep. Bob Sindler, the veterinarian who represents the district, convinced his colleagues to block the flow of previously public information to competitors who are making inroads in the pet-medication business `see "Rabid representation," March 12`. But Sindler failed to win support for $700,000 in employment-assistance funding to help the farmworkers prepare to find new jobs as the farmland is decommissioned in an effort to clean up the lake.

Asked to explain, Sindler said the proposal was axed by members of a conference committee, ostensibly because the expense would have been drawn from bond funds that were unavailable. Couldn't the cash have come from another pot? "Yeah, but not easily," he said last week during a break in budget negotiations. "It's not easy to get a $700,000 project."

Eventually, there will be some state money to assist the workers -- whatever proceeds arise from the sale of equipment purchased from the farmers as part of the buyout, to be accomplished with $65 million in state funds and another $26 million from the feds. And Sindler promised to bring back tuition waivers and other assistance.

But earlier this year, farmworker advocates and Orange County officials realized the opportunity to truly affect the workers' plights would be lost unless money was made available in advance of the equipment sales.

"Our intention was to get retraining money a lot earlier so people would be prepared, so they would be ready when they have to leave the farms," said Jeannie Economos, coordinator of the Lake Apopka project for the Farmworkers Association of Florida.

With no such funding forthcoming, the soon-to-be unemployed workers -- some of whom may not qualify for unemployment benefits because bad weather limited their worktime -- are unlikely to get a chance to develop any skills that might help them land anything more than menial labor jobs.

"It's not a pretty picture," Economos says. It gets even gloomier. Though funds already have been set aside, including $300,000 by the Central Florida Jobs and Education Partnership Board, not a single worker has received any help -- although a coordinator has been hired.

There is confusion about the reasons for the delay. "We can't serve them until they've been given their layoff notices," says Alice Cobb, the board's director of planning. "Many of the farms may not want to give them layoff notices. They have crops in the field." But A. Duda & Sons, one of the larger farms, issued layoff notices to 47 full-time and more than 300 seasonal workers notices in January, says Duda spokesperson Susan Howard. Informed of that, Cobb replies, "They just need to come in."

Another of Howard's comments probably explains why the workers haven't begun applying for retraining. While some crops already have been harvested, "We certainly didn't want our employees to leave us until the work has been done," she says, adding that the company is working with other employers to place some workers.

The wholesale job losses will hit on June 30. Unfortunately the workers -- who for generations have provided the muscle behind this region's agricultural economy -- will have received little or no assistance with landing new jobs.

Maybe that's what Webster, Jennings and the rest of the Legislature, as well as local political and business leaders, really wanted to happen. After all, area businesses are starving for bodies to fill the minimum-wage jobs that carry the Central Florida economy.

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