Go west, fruit picker

by Mason Adams

WASHINGTON

For years, migrant workers have flocked to eastern Washington to pick apples in the fall (HCN, 12/18/00: Troubled harvest). But with a jump in global competition, apple orchards have streamlined their operations to save costs, eliminating jobs in the process. This season, a late hailstorm wiped out nearly 30 percent of the apple crop east of the Cascades, and since then local growers and packers have been hiring even less, or shutting down altogether.

One result has been a flood of displaced workers moving west. Joseph Garcia, an instructor at South Seattle Community College, says that this move has been going on since 1985, but this year's problems have accelerated the migration.

"There's a tremendous amount of pressure building," he says. "There will be an incredible impact on education, particularly in elementary schools, because of the sheer numbers."

Garcia says that affordable housing and health care will also become increasingly important as more and more migrants move to the Seattle area.

Farmworkers who have remained east of the Cascades are also facing tough economic times, and several groups have sprung up to offer assistance. Cristobal Gonzalez of Horizon Inc. is helping displaced workers get into training programs for such jobs as automotive work, construction, nursing and commercial truck driving.

"We're seeing more migrant people coming into the state," Gonzalez says. "There weren't enough jobs to begin with, and now there are less jobs and more competition."

© High Country News