Investigative
9:06 am
Mon October 7, 2013

Making $1.50 an hour to pick blueberries

This week I’m bringing you segments from my documentary, “Voices from the Fields,” a story of migrant workers in Michigan. It will air Wednesday on Stateside.

Michigan is the nation’s largest producer of blueberries. But getting blueberries to our bowls means long tedious work for the people who pick them. And in some cases, workers complain that the pay is far too low.

When I was reporting for this documentary, I visited the Hamilton Family.

When I met up with them they were living in a broken down trailer behind an old flea market garage and a vacant parking lot cluttered with tall weeds in southwest Michigan.

Seven people were living in the trailer. One of them was Randy Hamilton Sr., the father of the family. They are white and are a minority in the fields. Hamtilon Sr. has been doing migrant work since he was in 8th grade. That's when he dropped out of school in order to make money picking in the fields.  

“There’s no other jobs for us that you’ve got a high school diploma, and we don’t have it,” he says.

The Hamilton’s were out of work and out of money.

They quit their job picking blueberries in southwest Michigan. That’s because they couldn’t keep up with the picking demands in order to make minimum wage.

Making $1.50 an hour under piece rate pay

Here’s how pay usually works in the blueberry business: Pickers are paid what is called a piece rate. That means they are paid by the amount of fruit they can pick. The Hamilton’s were getting paid 42 cents for picking a pound of blueberries. That means they had to pick about 18 pounds of blueberries an hour in order to make minimum wage.

Farmers say it is a system that motivates workers.

Now, some workers can’t pick 18 pounds of blueberries an hour. And when workers aren’t making minimum wage, farmers are supposed to make up the difference. But that doesn’t always happen. And that didn’t happen when Randy Hamilton Jr. took a look at the family’s checks for the first time.

“I said, this ain’t right, our checks ain’t right. We worked 21 hours. That can’t be right,” he says.

The Hamilton family made between $1.50 and $2.70 an hour, less than half of minimum wage.

Hamilton Jr. says, “Basically, the way they paying us, I don’t know how anybody can make it.”

And the Hamilton’s weren’t the only ones who had wage problems at this particular farm. Other pickers were complaining too. So the workers called a meeting with the owner of the operation. His name is Tony Marr.

“They didn’t want to work, they talked about unionizing, they talked about other things and I said, ‘I really need you guys to go back and pick,” Marr says.

Making $15 an hour under piece rate pay

But Marr did listen to the workers complaints, and they came to a compromise. Marr raised the piece rate from 42 cents a pound to 46 cents a pound. He also invested in a digital weighing system that keeps better track of how much workers pick. Now he says he’s paying workers much higher than minimum wage.

Marr says quite a few of his workers were making between $12 and $15 an hour.

So while it looks like things got better at Marr’s farm, low wages are still a problem elsewhere. Hamilton Jr. says he and his family have been paid less than minimum wage working in fields all across the U.S.

“We went through it in South Carolina, North Carolina, coming up this way, I mean growing up. . .  Not just here, Florida, South Carolina, we’ve been through West Virginia, Illinois, we’ve been treated the same way,” he says.

Prevalence of low wages for migrant workers

Tom Thornburg is an attorney with Farm Worker Legal Services in Kalamazoo. He says the piece rate system is unsustainable. Just imagine trying to picking 18 pounds of blueberries, hour after hour, for up to 12 hours a day.

“You can’t keep it up hour after hour, you have to go to the bathroom, you have to stop, it’s hot out there,” Thornburg says.

Thornburg says he sees wage issues all the time in Michigan.

He says about a third of the calls that come into his office have to do with workers not getting paid as much as they should.

“It’s widespread,” Thornburg says.  “It’s nearly ubiquitous because it is almost an impossibility that a person would get minimum wage for every hour that they put in for the employer under that system.”

And low wages were also an issue addressed in a 2010 report about migrant workers by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission.

Marcelina Trevino-Savala is an attorney with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. She says it’s difficult to get a handle on the scope of the problem just by looking at the number of complaints.

“We are talking about a community who is hard working and kind of likes to be under the radar as far as being troublemakers or bringing up issues that they are entitled to bring up, but unfortunately, sometimes having that secure job and working under those conditions, it’s better than bringing up issues that might ultimately lead to a termination that they fear regardless if it’s lawful or unlawful,” Marcelina Trevino Savala says.

Farmers don't get a lot from money spent at the grocery store

But farmers disagree. Craig Anderson is with the Michigan Farm Bureau. He says he doesn’t think wages are a problem for farm workers. He says the numbers he sees indicate that farm workers pay is actually pretty good.

“Virtually every set of payroll data that I look at, most folks on the piece rate are making more than the minimum wage, some significantly more than the minimum wage during most weeks,” Anderson says.

But Anderson says anyone who thinks the bulk of what they pay at the grocery store goes back to farmers are dead wrong.

“Depending on the estimates, it ranges between 4 and 20 cents for the different commodities that are out there,” Anderson says.

Americans pay less for groceries every year, which doesn't help migrant workers or farmers

And that’s not a lot of money for the farmer, let alone the farm worker. And we are expected to see a lot more sales on things like blueberries and apples this year. That’s because of a large harvest of those crops in Michigan and other states. 

Yet while we like to see sales, we are actually spending way less on groceries overall year after year. According to the USDA Americans spend 6% of their disposable income on groceries. That’s down from about 10% back in the early 1980s.

And we want to pay less and less all the time, which means less and less for farmers. And it means even less for farm workers.