The 20 displaced farmworkers who attended last week's meeting of the Orange County Commission hoped to take advantage of a democratic process they feel has left them behind. The workers, many of them unemployed since last year's buyout of the farms around Lake Apopka, were there to request further funding for the educational effort designed to train farmworkers for other industries.
After sitting through two hours of unrelated debate, however, the workers were surprised when the topic of retraining was not discussed in detail at all during a vote to spend proceeds related to the buyout. Indeed, it was mentioned only in passing, with Commissioner Ted Edwards referring to the retraining program as a "failure."
"That annoyed me to no end," laments Jeannie Economos, who coordinates the Lake Apopka retraining effort for the Apopka-based Farmworker Association of Florida, a nonprofit organization that acts as an advocate for more than 6,000 Haitian, Hispanic and African-American laborers. "We were under the impression that the commission meeting would be a public forum where we could discuss this issue.
"Instead, they just declared it a failure and moved on."
The association did secure another $75,000 for its work. Even so, something else about the commission meeting bothered the former farmworkers. As they watched the commission quickly approve $400,000 in state and county money to attack the growing problem of mice infestation in northwest Orange County -- another offshoot resulting from the cleared farmlands -- they marveled that the rodents generated such fast action while their own very human needs seemed to go unaddressed for months.
"It just goes to show that the squeaky wheel gets the grease," says Economos. "The mouse problem, which is a legitimate concern, has grabbed the public's attention. The commissioners quickly threw money at the problem. [But] all the while, unemployed farmworkers have to fight for any benefits."
They still would be employed if not for the state's Lake Apopka Restoration Act. Hoping to rescue the lake, the state spent $91 million in 1998 to buy 14,000 acres of surrounding farmland, halting the runoff of pesticides, fertilizers and other pollutants that had contaminated Florida's fourth-largest body of water for decades. Unemployed and facing the loss of their homes, many of the mostly low-income and minority workforce left the area for good, hoping to find jobs elsewhere.
Although the farm owners were paid well for their land and, in some cases, immediately set up shop outside the area, their departure left more than 2,000 workers without a job or benefits. Making matters worse, some did not even qualify for unemployment compensation, because bad weather in the months preceding the last harvest had decreased the number of hours they'd been able to work.
"Those were very hard times," remembers Elouise Barnes, a lifelong farmworker who was among those who showed up to speak to the county commission, but left unheard.
Economos and others say those hard times were the fault of red tape. Although nearly $350,000 was to be set aside for worker retraining, that money was not released until months after the workers lost their jobs. Reluctant to commit to a retraining program that had no funding in place, workers left Central Florida in droves, desperately seeking employment in the fields of Texas, Alabama and South Florida.
"As with most government programs, this one took several months to set up," says Economos. "The government had all the time in the world; unfortunately, the workers didn't. They had to find some way to support their families."
After many of the workers left, federal funds finally became available. By that point, Economos and her team could only find 510 of the 2,000 workers, of which only 78 enrolled in educational, vocational and other programs designed to help them ease into better-paying careers. Classes include "English as a Second Language," an important course for the many Hispanic farmworkers.
While Economos concedes that participation in the retraining effort was low, she adds that the bad turnout was not entirely the fault of the farmworkers or the government. "Some [workers] were unaware that they were losing their jobs. To prevent attrition, some farm owners told their employees that the buyout wasn't going to happen. The workers were oblivious to impending unemployment until it was too late. ... The workers were taken by surprise by the loss of their jobs, and the government was not forthcoming with the money they had promised.
"If the money had been released a few months earlier," she insists, "the program would have been a success."
But even for those who enrolled in the retraining effort, the program hasn't gone smoothly: Many risk losing their subsistence funding in the next few months, before the program concludes. Farmworkers have been collecting a stipend of $2.65 per hour while attending the retraining -- money that many thought would last through the end of the effort. But that money is available through the state's Training Investment Program (TIP) for only 26 weeks, and many have been receiving letters telling them that their benefits are about to run out.
County Commissioner Bob Sindler, whose district covers the Apopka area, recognizes the problem. "I was recently at a meeting where the farmworkers were explaining to me that they had been led to believe that it would last much longer," he says. As for a solution, "We do have some money that came from the sale of the farm equipment," he says, "and we're trying to see what federal funds are available."
Economos understandably fears more red tape.
"If they could see the success that the workers are having, they would never cut off the funding," she says. "These are hard-working people who pay their taxes. When they finish retraining, they'll be gainfully employed, putting money back into the economy. I wish the commissioners could meet some of the participants to see the profound change the retraining is having in their lives."
One such participant is Elouise Barnes, who is now attending classes at a high-school level. "I'm going to finish my GED by the end of the year," she says. "And I'm learning Microsoft Windows and Word. I want to get a job in medical records." She knows the importance of her educational opportunity. "No one's going to hire me without a GED," she notes. "If it wasn't for the retraining, I wouldn't be able to get a job."
Her classmates see themselves in the same way.
When at first Celia Chavez, 20, lost her job, she considered finding another farmworking position. Realizing that she had no marketable skills, she decided to enroll in the retraining effort. "I wasn't qualified for anything," she says. "I have to get my diploma so that I can find a good job."
Chavez represents the current type of farmworker: second- and third-generation laborers who have depended on Central Florida's farmland for support. "All my life, I've been picking peas, peppers and carrots," she says. "It's hard work, but you do what you have to do to survive."
But survival through farm work may be disappearing. Florida farmland is decreasing at the rapid rate of 5 percent a year. Experts estimate that the state's agriculture could all but disappear by 2020. Faced with those statistics, Chavez knows that she has to get out of farm work. "I don't want to work on farms all my life," she says. "I want to get my GED in five months, and then study to be a medical secretary."
This lofty goal would be impossible without the retraining effort, believes Economos. "That's why I hate to hear it described as a failure. For the 80 or so people we enrolled, it has been very successful."
Sindler understands that fact. "The worker-retraining effort was an important part of the Lake Apopka restoration," he says.
Barnes sees it in more personal terms. "Without retraining, most of us wouldn't be able to get a job," she says. "Retraining gives me a purpose and gives me hope."
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