HATCH — At the height of New Mexico’s chile harvest season, Sabino Olivas works up to 10 hours a day.
On his knees and under the hot sun, no less.
Every morning, the 59-year-old farmworker puts on a cowboy hat and a pair of construction-style kneepads to prepare for a full day of crawling in the fields.
As he inches between row upon row of chile plants, which produced a bumper crop this year, Olivas methodically picks peppers by hand and then tosses them into a bucket before emptying the contents into a burlap sack.
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
“There are times it gets hard, but you just do the work, and it gets done,” Olivas, who is from the Mexican state of Chihuahua, said in Spanish last week as he harvested green chile that’s quickly turning red.
But this year, the work almost didn’t get done — at least not the way many farmers had hoped.
The issue? Not enough hands.
New Mexico’s chile industry typically employs 3,000 seasonal workers between the farm and the processor. At the start of the season, the industry was grappling with a 45 percent labor shortage, or 1,350 seasonal employees.
It’s not a new problem.
A lack of workers willing to take on the laborious task, particularly people from the United States, has been an ongoing issue in the chile industry. But farmers say the coronavirus pandemic — and weekly unemployment benefits — only exacerbated the problem.
At the beginning of the harvest season, some farmers and Republican lawmakers sounded the alarm, saying a labor shortage threatened New Mexico’s signature crop.
“This isn’t a D or an R issue,” Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, said at the time. “This is a red or green issue.”
Diamond and others raised concerns that much of the chile would turn from green to red before it could be picked or, even worse, left to rot on the vine.
As a solution, they called on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to immediately cut off extra unemployment payments they said were keeping workers at home instead of finding a job.
While the focus was on farmworkers, Republicans were quick to point out other industries were suffering from a lack of employees, too.
“Based on nationwide trends, it is clear that the increased unemployment benefits set in place by the federal government and your administration during the pandemic have exceeded their use and are now the leading cause of labor shortages in virtually every area of our state’s economy, including the chile industry,” Diamond and Reps. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences and Luis Terrazas of Silver City wrote in a letter to the governor.
Lujan Grisham, a Democrat running for reelection next year, declined to end the benefits early.
As an alternative, her administration came up with a pilot program to temporarily boost workers’ pay in an effort to get more bodies in the fields.
Under the Chile Labor Incentive Program, the state committed $5 million in federal stimulus funds to provide money to chile growers, contractors and processors to supplement employee wages, as well as to incentivize hiring and retention.
An unsustainable raise?
Whether the pilot program has been a success or a failure depends on whom you ask.
“The program has paid out $420,000 and helped 13 chile contractors, growers and processors supplement the wages of over 1,000 workers, resulting in more chile being harvested and more dollars going into the pockets of laborers — and ultimately, New Mexico’s farmers and economy,” Maddy Hayden, a spokeswoman for the governor, wrote in an email. “We’ve also heard directly from the industry that they’re appreciative of the program and it is making a difference.”
Diamond said she, too, appreciates the governor’s efforts to help the chile industry. But she said the results of the program so far hardly qualify as a success.
“I want to thank [Lujan Grisham] for trying to create a program that may have offered some relief,” she said. “But I think you could argue [the program] was a failure. It sounds like only [$420,000] out of the $5 million has been accessed.”
Dow, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, said the 13 contractors, growers and producers were simply provided a Band-Aid this year.
“Rather than commonsense governance, [Lujan Grisham] continues with her reactionary tendency,” she said. “Her broken policies keep making winners and losers. She could simply end the supplemental unemployment and mandatory vaccinations and get New Mexicans back to work.”
Hayden contends the numbers show the program has had a positive result. The volume of chile harvested so far this season is about 5 percent above where it was last year.
“We’d call that success,” she wrote.
Some farmers, however, say volume is up because the plants produced much more chile this year, primarily because of ideal weather conditions.
Diamond said many of the chile farmers she’s spoken with are hesitant to participate in the program.
“What they fear is that it creates this unsustainable wage rate because next year they are not going to be able to afford that higher price point, and they won’t have any assistance or supplemental income in trying to provide that wage. So, I think they realized that was putting them in a very dangerous position for next year,” she said.
Joram Robbs, executive director of the New Mexico Chile Association, shared a similar perspective.
“What I’ve heard from a lot of the growers is they weren’t favorable of this program because they believe that when the money runs out, the workers are going to say, ‘Nah, I don’t want to work anymore if I’m not going to get [supplemental wages],’ ” he said. “Or next year they’re going to come and organize and say they won’t work for anything less than $19 an hour.”
The association reports the average wage for a farmworker is $15 an hour. Under CLIP, the “maximum premium payment” farmworkers receive through the program is not allowed exceed $4.50 an hour, according to the state Department of Agriculture, which is administering the program.
“Funds may be used to enhance wages for laborers up to a maximum of $19.50 an hour. Wages in excess of $19.50 per hour are not eligible for CLIP,” the department wrote in a program fact sheet.
For example, if a laborer earns $13 an hour, the program allows for an additional $4.50 an hour, or a total of $17.50 an hour. If a laborer earns $16 an hour, the program only allows for an additional $3.50 an hour, or a total of $19.50 an hour, according to the fact sheet.
Dwindling local labor
Terry Adams, a Hatch farmer who is using funds from the program to offset labor costs, said she received a reimbursement check last week, and it was “awesome.”
“It was very helpful,” she said. “It’s going to help with the cost and then help us keep picking our chile, certainly.”
Kristie Garcia, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture, said the program is intended to allow farmers, processors and contractors to provide laborers a higher wage.
“As long as laborers are earning a higher wage, it’s allowable,” she wrote.
Adams called the labor shortage “severe” and said she’s relying on a mix of locals and about 135 so-called H-2A workers from outside the country to help pick this year’s crop.
Under the H-2A program, employers who meet specific regulatory requirements are allowed to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Adams said it’s “very expensive” to use H-2A workers.
“I’m paying them $13.67 an hour, and then I have to pay their travel from their home all the way here and when I send them back,” she said. “I also pay for their visas and when they’re here, I also pay for all of their housing, and I have to transport them myself and pay for all of that as well.”
Though it’s expensive, New Mexico’s chile industry is poised to rely on such workers to harvest the crop in the future, Adams said.
Local labor this year has dwindled by more than half of what she had last year, Adams said. “If that’s all I had to depend on, I wouldn’t have been picking chile.”
The shrinking number of locals who work the fields are aging, Adams said, adding a lot of younger people don’t want to pick chile. While the work is hard, “there’s a lot of things that are hard,” she said.
“People just aren’t willing to work,” she said. “I mean, you give them a job and they’ll stand there with a hoe in one hand and their cellphone in the other. You can’t get them to get off their phones to do anything. It’s bad.”
Adams predicts she’ll be able to harvest all of her chile this year and said she’s “very thankful” for the state-run pilot program.
Garcia said the agency has no way of knowing how many applications it will receive for CLIP and for what amounts.
“Being that this is a pilot program, we did not know what to expect,” she wrote. “We are receiving applications on a daily basis.”
Funding is available on a first-come, first-served basis. Applicants are allowed to seek reimbursement for labor cost expenses between Aug. 9 and Oct. 31. The deadline for all applications and claims is Nov. 30.
Sergio Grajeda, who farms about 100 acres in Hatch, said he was unaware of the program but didn’t think it was a good idea. He said the government should crack down on the unemployed and find out who can and can’t work.
“There are young people from 20 to 25 years old who are, I’m sorry to say it, just having babies so the government can pay them more money,” he said in Spanish. “It’s a very sad situation.”
Like other farmers, Grajeda blamed the labor shortage on what he described as government handouts that don’t motivate people to get a job.
“They earn more receiving government benefits than working,” he said. “Here, there’s a lot of work. But a lot of people don’t want to work.”
As his 21-year-old son worked outside the family store along the main thoroughfare in Hatch last week, Grajeda recalled the story of a young man about his son’s age who lived in a nearby apartment and asked him for a cigarette.
Grajeda told him he didn’t smoke but offered to pay him $10 to move about 70 sacks of chile from a trailer to a pallet. He told the man it was no more than 10 minutes worth of work.
“You know what he told me? ‘Oh, I’m sorry, it’s too hot,’ ” Grajeda said. “He didn’t want to. Instead, he went back to his apartment to sleep.”
Diamond said she believes ending the extra unemployment benefits as initially requested of the governor would have had better results for the chile industry. She said she recently attended a presentation and heard a perfect analogy of the situation.
“They said, ‘Unemployment and these benefits were intended to serve as trampolines to get people back on their feet. And as a society, we should welcome that, and we should be very quick to help those in need. But what’s happened is instead of a trampoline, it’s being used as a hammock,’ ” Diamond recalled. “We created a system where there’s no incentive for them to get out of it.”
But Hayden, the governor’s spokeswoman, pointed to studies that found ending unemployment benefits early had little impact on jobs. The reports found the $300-a-week supplemental unemployment benefits had “minimal impact” on an individual’s decision to accept or decline a job offer, Hayden wrote in an email.
“States that ended the $300 weekly supplement earlier this summer did not see significant hiring increases,” she wrote.
One of the 13 participants in the chile program, Bueno Foods, one of the most recognizable brands in New Mexico, doesn’t farm chile or employ farmworkers directly. Instead, the company purchases its chile from farmers with whom it has had long-standing relationships, often for generations, Ana Baca, vice president of marketing and communications, wrote in an email.
“This year will be a very tough year for the chile industry in general and for farmers because of the labor shortage,” she wrote. “Everyone in the industry is extremely grateful for these funds that will help farmers and farmworkers and workers in the industry directly. Without this assistance to farmers and workers, more of the New Mexico chile would have been lost.”