HR weirdness in the recruitment of blueberry pickers: why in hell is this even a thing?

The Facebook posts from the blueberry farm where I worked last summer are getting screwier. A few months ago there was an outburst of “What a great day the Lord has made let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Wow Much religious None punctuations Very omg jesus buy our froot plz. I found this post mildly unprofessional, since I don’t consider business pages appropriate venues for the airing of religious sentiments, even ones that I privately feel from time to time and which cause me to (again, usually privately) give thanks to God. There ought to be boundaries against religiosity in business, just as there ought to be boundaries against the profane commercialization of religion.

Of course, I heard about, witnessed, or was drawn into behavior at this farm that was grossly unprofessional, including an incident in which Mother-in-Law ordered a number of us to help sort berries into fresh market and jam piles, completely unpaid. After ten or fifteen minutes of this, we started giving her subtle what-the-fuck looks, like, uh, can we go back to our $3/hour field jobs already instead of making absolutely nothing in this room while y’all give us sideeye. This was how obsequious we were in the face of managerial practices that were flatly illegal. I was told that the owners were paying a ten-year-old two dollars an hour to do the same work in the packing shed on a regular basis: doubly illegal, but the owners were just trying to make a living and the girl’s family needed the money, too, so agorism, bitch. Of course, any one of us could have had regulators dogpile the owners for minimum wage (as in, no wage) and child labor violations, and dogpile them again at the first sign of whistleblower retaliation or interference with workplace organization activity in violation of NLRB regulations, either of which I could have navigated with little difficulty (other than the emotional difficulty of telling agorist belligerents to get stuffed or served with restraining orders and dodging Mother-in-Law’s likely assertion of acute psychological *TIMMEH*).

I didn’t want to wander across the Rubicon and stir up a shitstorm, so I held my peace. For one thing, these people were actually exceptionally ethical by the standards of American growers. This is a terrible thing to have to say, but it’s true. The intersection of Linn County’s rural poverty, entrepreneurial tenuousness, and country Baptist authoritarianism is a dumpster fire, but other places are worse. Woodburn (heh) is more like a warehouse full of burning dumpsters. So are Hood River, the Dalles, Yakima, the Tri-Cities, and parts of the North Sound. I could add probably half of the counties in California to this list.

Under the current labor law nonenforcement regime governing large growers and packers, there’s simply no way to reward ethical behavior by the few growers who actually make an effort to be ethical without wading into a quagmire of moral relativism and moral hazard. If regulators dogpile smallholders over incidental wage theft and child labor with mitigating circumstances (specifically, that we all po’ crackas), they’ll mainly end up strangling competition for large growers who engage in systemic, deliberate fraud for the purpose of harboring contingent foreign workforces that can hardly speak English. This prospect calls to mind an old proverb, attributed to the Czechs: “The big thieves hang the little thieves.” The dysfunction and minor lawlessness that I witnessed in Linn County took place in the context of an intact, functioning community. Nobody was busing in crews of Mexican peasants, then deciding that the beaners had gotten all uppity, firing them en masse, and flying in Thai peasants as replacements. Yes, a crew of Mexican H2-A roustabouts in Washington took their employer to court a few years ago over Thai scab labor. There’s no floor of shame through which the sleazier growers won’t crash. They’re organized crime syndicates. It might be said that our bosses at the blueberry farm were a disorganized crime family. None of it was a hill of beans compared to the shit thatWAFLA pulls.

Still, it can get pretty sketchy and unctuous. They wanted to keep some of us on as postseason weeder, but only at a piece rate. I recall it being $5 a row, with the rows averaging 150 or 200 feet long. I agreed to stay on until I realized that I’d hemorrhage money on lodging, might well not clear minimum wage, and wouldn’t have more than one or two other non-owners working with me to deflect weird intrusions from the owners into my business. I decided that I would need better conditions to actually show up and yank thistles out of the mulch for four or six dollars an hour. Yes, there are circumstances under which I might do that. The sub-minimum-wage aspect of this offer was not the dealbreaker for me. Go bother someone else about his exquisite Millennial entitlement. I was only a tiny bit annoyed that these people wanted to hire us on the cheap for this stoop labor; I was much more bothered by the prospect of their getting weird with me while I ran my finances into the ground paying for high-season lodging on nights when the KOA was full. I was not going to explain, say, why I was working for them in my mid-thirties instead of running a farm of my own. They seemed like ones to look a gift horse in the mouth if they got bored, and I was categorically not down with that. Consequently, I texted Daughter-in-Law the next morning with a made-up story about car trouble and blew off a call from Mother-in-Law a few days later, after my broken-down car had miraculously gotten me to a trailhead several miles downstream from the mouth of Lake Tahoe. Cars are funny that way. The crux of it was that I was on the verge of having to perform excruciating affective labor, and I don’t do affective labor for less than the prevailing minimum wage. Mother-in-Law had already asked me where I was staying and acted a bit off when I answered truthfully that I was bouncing around from place to place. Gift horse dentistry, y’all. For fuck’s sake, I showed up and picked your damn fruit;  keep probing the mechanics of how I managed it and I’ll fuck off to Tahoe again.

This year, they’re saying on Facebook that they “have openings for a few more pickers” and are “looking to fill the crew by 6/10 if we can,” so they want interested applicants to e-mail them for applications. First of all, no, your toddler is NOT “getting the hang of this berry picking thing.” The cutesy shit has been getting over-the-top. There wasn’t really any of it when I worked the end of the 2013 season; I returned in 2015 to a rising tide of twee nonsense alternating with borderline-harassing tirades from Mother-in-Law. E.g., isn’t it cool that Daughter-in-Law is “Lady Liberty,” unless Mother-in-Law is yelling at me at the top of her lungs, in front of other pickers, about how I’ll be fired if I keep dropping so much fruit. Cooing over a toddler pretending to pick blueberries is especially screwy coming from people who had a ten-year-old sorting berries in their shed and a twelve-year-old ADHDing all over everyone else in the field. Muh chilluns woykin. The increasingly childish managerial tricks that they used (e.g., timed poundage races) probably contributed to the horseplay that set Mother-in-Law off when she got sprayed by some dipshits who were trying to spray each other with the hose (this time, she was reasonable to lash out and only a tiny bit excessive) and to the ADHD brat wrestling with his sister while she was trying to work, screaming “MOTHERFUCKER” for reasons left unexplained (probably an inside joke for one), managing hourly production as low as one pound, and unexpectedly blurting out “Was he a sergeant major?” when I was telling him about my grandfather’s time in the Army Quartermaster Corps. (No, he was a colonel, and present company was a space cadet.) There was scarcely any maturity for the crew to mimic if it didn’t have a reserve of its own to tap. I was working with fifteen- and even fourteen-year-olds whose workplace behavior was more mature, even-keeled, and professional than that of our bosses. As leading Linn County presidential candidate Donald Trump would say, No Maturity. SAD!

Why do they think there’s a set number of pickers that they need or can accommodate? Hell if I can say for sure. Most of their pickers get dropped off and picked up by their parents; I was one of three or four on the crew last year who drove and parked there. Parking space wasn’t much of a problem. The break overhang could get crowded, but anyone who didn’t like the crowding was free to spend breaks outside. I often had to choose between listening to a few minutes of The Takeaway in my car and hearing whatever torrent of mostly off-color comments the teenagers were making in the shed, which was actually pretty difficult, since John Hockenberry isn’t a censorious twit and Daughter-in-Law was one about the shed language. I heard nothing from that crew that could hold a candle to the garbage comportment of the shadow Mexicans and wiggers I’ve worked with down valley. And yes, that’s in spite of that white supremacist dipshit who spent his free time reading about Barack Obama’s foreign birth on Nigger Mania. Gee, what’s going on, Ed? Nothing fit for NPR, Devin. Life gets scheduled that way sometimes: one of the few dissidents from the House Voice conflicts with the company of cool-ass motherfuckers who know how to kick it (real ones, not loudmouthed self-declared ones in Red Bluff) (((SELF-DECLARED ISLAMIC STATE))) but who also know how to inadvertently scandalize precious Christian businesspeople momentarily distracted from their extreme use of child labor.

Slightly off-topic, the ADHD twerp would be instabae if he went to WHYY and yelled “motherfucker” at Brenda Jorett. Make dirty old man Franklin proud, kid. He wouldn’t want that bitch scolding Philadelphia every morning, either. We’re doing 69 on Independence Mall–I mean, it’s 69 on–if you draw eyes and mouths on the interlocking chevrons of the SEPTA logo, they sort of look like they’re doing 69, but if that sounds dirty, you must not be familiar with the Philadelphia subway system. Including the Speed Line. Kinda yuck.

Okay, more than slightly off-topic. The owners of that blueberry farm want the crew set for the season by June 10. I doubt they’ll offer competitive wages to this end. I mean even fifty cents a pound; I’ll be floored if they offer a base rate higher than that. If they have any sense, they’ll expect pickers to quit over the course of the season. Maybe they’ll remember Mother-in-Law’s threats to do a night of the long knives on lagging producers and feeble attempt to recruit replacements by putting a handwritten help wanted sign out by the cash register and the weigh station. They certainly didn’t do much to inspire low turnover last year.

Another thing they’re doing this year is enabling the mother (I think) of one of their pickers from last year in her effort to CC him into reupping for the current season. They (i.e., Mother-in-Law I think, but hell if I can say for sure) liked this woman’s electronic paging of her son. White boy, please report to a white discourtesy telephone. As I said, the boundaries around there are terrible. I would not tolerate employers contacting my parents. By not tolerate, I mean that I’d give them one cease-and-desist letter before sending a lawyer after them. This is why I don’t generally say much about my family to employers, and often little about myself. This is especially true for loose cannons with boundary problems like Mother-in-Law. She pulled even worse shit last year: berating parents about their kids being deficient pickers, badgering kids themselves at 8:30 pm, that kind of thing. Maybe she realized that I wouldn’t respond well to that crap. She probably linked cause with effect when she yelled about how she’d fire me if I kept dropping fruit and I disappeared for a week. It must suck to have to put up with someone like her as a local maven and busybody. Some of the pickers she bothered told me as much.

They are not advertising on Craigslist. I just checked both jobs and gigs using queries more inventive and varied than any they’ve used in the past. They’d rather get all incestuous on Facebook, I guess. Again, yuck. As they say in Vermont, and might say in the break shed if management isn’t listening, what do they call the sweat dripping off two Mainers making love?

Relative humidity.

The difference is that child protective services can be called in the event of literal incest. What we’re dealing with here is what pass for local cultural traditions as interpreted by one of the most emotionally unhinged people in the county at a time when the job market is a pile of shit. This, I’m afraid, is the more insidious version.


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