It's all in how you add up tomato pickers' pay
By PHIL LEWIS
naplesnews.com
Saturday, September 22, 2007
 
An e-mail made it to the editor’s desk first thing Wednesday morning carrying the title:
 
“Educating Naples News Reporters on Tomato Industry Facts.”
 
It was from a member of the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a statewide cooperative of farmers and vegetable producers.
 
The gist was that we got our facts wrong this past Wednesday when we published a story about a local farm labor group that is planning demonstrations at various Burger King restaurants in the area.
 
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is urging Burger King, which has its corporate offices in Miami, to pitch in some money to help supplement the pay of farm workers who pick the tomatoes that might end up on hamburgers and in salads. The CIW has targeted Taco Bell and McDonald’s in the past.
 
In the story we quoted farm worker wage and hour figures provided by the CIW.
 
Our story stated that tomato pickers in Florida fields are paid 40 cents to 45 cents for every bucket picked.
 
The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange told us it’s more like 50 cents a bucket.
 
Our story stated that farm workers regularly work 10-hour to 15-hour days.
 
The tomato growers told us the average field hand only picks tomatoes 25 or 30 hours a week.
 
Our story said a farm worker would have to pick 125 buckets of tomatoes (each bucket holds 32 pounds) to earn $50 a day.
 
The tomato growers told us the average field hand makes $12.46 an hour. If that’s true, you could make $50 in slightly more than four hours.
 
Wow, we thought, something’s wrong.
 
Who’s right?
 
Both sides. It all depends on how you use the figures and the terms.
 
Here’s what we found:
 
Tomato pickers do make between 40 cents and 45 cents for every bucket picked, but that’s typically during a field’s first picking. Fields are picked more than once because the vines produce fruit over the course of weeks. Tomatoes that are too small for picking the first time a crew works a field are left to grow. At a later date, the field is picked again. Many times, there’s a third picking as well.
 
The bucket price for a second picking is about 50 cents. The grower has to pay more to get enough workers. That’s because there are fewer tomatoes in the second go around so it takes longer to fill a 32-pound bucket. Sometimes during third pickings, the growers’ group claims, the price is 55 cents a bucket. That’s how the growers come up with the average bucket price being close to 50 cents, instead of 40 cents.
 
How about the hours worked?
 
The growers say field hands usually don’t start picking tomatoes until after the dew dries in the field. Tomatoes need to be dry before they are pulled from vines and dropped in a bucket. That usually doesn’t occur until 10 a.m., then picking continues until 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. That adds up to about 25 or 30 hours a week.
 
However, there are tasks performed before and after the picking. There’s the ride out to the fields and the preparation of the buckets. Workers are needed to set stakes for the plants and help lay black plastic over the sandy soil to block weed growth. Then, they are needed to pull stakes and pull plastic from the ground as one field gives way to another during the winter growing season. All in all, a farm worker can expect to put in an honest 10 to 15 hours a day, even though only about half of that time is devoted to picking tomatoes. Farm work during the height of season is a dawn-to-dusk job.
 
How about the amount earned in a day?
 
To sort through that, we had to take a crash course in exactly how a farm laborer is paid when it’s time to pick tomatoes.
 
Growers are required to pay workers minimum wage. In Florida, that’s $6.67 an hour, slightly higher than the federal minimum wage of $5.85. The $6.67 rate is how much a worker makes when he starts work each day, even if the worker is performing farm tasks while waiting for the dew to dry and the picking to start.
 
When the picking starts, the bucket rate kicks in. Let’s say it’s a field’s first picking and the grower is paying 40 cents a bucket. A worker picking 16 buckets or less in an hour, would make $6.67. For each bucket over 16, a worker would receive a 40-cent bonus on top of the hourly minimum wage. If you picked 32 buckets in the first hour, you would make $12.80.
 
The growers say they have federal payroll records showing that the average picker in Florida makes $12.46 an hour when they are actually picking. The pay per picker ranges between $7 and $14 an hour.
 
The labor group says that a worker has to pick 125 buckets in a day to earn $50. That’s true if the grower is paying 40 cents a bucket. The growers say that the fastest, most experienced tomato “harvester” – that’s what they call pickers – can make $100 a day just picking tomatoes. That’s because the average bucket rate is higher than 40 cents and because most “harvesters” pick more than 125 buckets a day.
 
A few minutes with a calculator shows that most skilled “harvesters” pick upwards of 28 buckets an hour, which adds up to 168 buckets in a typical six-hour picking period.
 
So, it all depends on how you look at it.
 
The growers group defends its pay practices showing that pickers can make $65-$70 during the six hours of picking, plus a wage for any farm work done before the picking starts and after it ends. If there’s work six days a week, field hands can make more than $400 a week. Where else can you make $400 a week without an education or formal training?
 
The labor group decries the pay practices, pointing out that farm labor, by law, does not have to be paid overtime and the workers get no benefits. Plus, to make $400 a week, you’re going to have to pick between 150 and 170 buckets a day. At 32 pounds per bucket, that adds up to nearly three tons a day. That’s a lot of tomatoes.
 
2007 Naples Daily News and NDN Productions. Published in Naples, Florida, USA by the E.W. Scripps Co.