Produce inspectors with the Arizona Department of Agriculture stage a work stoppage on Monday, June 5 in protest of what they describe as unfair working conditions.
State agricultural inspectors in Nogales staged a work stoppage on Monday outside the Arizona Department of Agriculture building on Grand Avenue in protest of what they described as long working hours and poor conditions in some of the local produce warehouses.
The roughly 25 non-unionized employees, who did not wish to be named for fear of being fired or retaliated against, said they usually start work at 8 or 10 a.m. and on most days work well past midnight – or until the work is complete. Many in the group said they clear 90-plus hours in one week, with one employee adding that he’d worked roughly 175 hours the last pay period, more than double the usual 80 hours worked in a two-week period.
Employees also voiced concerns that they are only allowed a 15-minute lunch break and many said they’ve been threatened with verbal or written warnings if they try to leave before the work is finished.
And though they said they’re being paid for the extra hours, they added that they feel tired and overworked, which can make for dangerous working conditions.
To remedy this, the workers are asking that officials in the local office implement a workday cut-off time.
In addition to the long working hours, the employees also complained about poor working conditions in some of the warehouses. They cited old and outdated machinery and said there is a shortage of inspectors this year, even though the local produce industry projected a 20-percent increase in Mexican grapes crossing through Nogales this summer.
Lance Jungmeyer, president of the Nogales-based Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, said shippers have to maintain certain standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and inspectors can file complaints against the individual companies if they feel conditions aren’t right.
“I think there are things in place to address those kinds of conditions and those situations should be brought up on an individual basis with shippers if things aren’t correct in that individual company,” he said. “It shouldn’t be used as an excuse to strike against the whole industry.”
Jungmeyer added that he was “surprised” to hear about the group’s strike considering that employees are hired with the understanding that they’re expected to work long hours.
“It’s implied when they hire workers for this, ‘There is going to be a number of you who are being hired for a very short-term duration to come in here and inspect these grapes, doing a lot of work during that time, and when it’s over that’s it,’” he said. “I’m surprised that the employees are suggesting that there are long hours when they were hired for a position basically described as having long hours.”
The group is also asking for new leadership at the local office, citing continued tension between workers and management.
“The bosses aren’t on our side, they’re on the side of the warehouses,” one of the workers said.
While the employees were speaking with this reporter Monday, one of the branch managers came to ask the employees if they planned to work that day. Every individual said no. The group’s spokesperson, Alex Romero, was also asked to sign out for the day and was sent home.
And despite the loss of wages and nearly 100-degree heat, members of the group said they’re willing to protest until their concerns have been addressed.
Laura Oxley, spokeswoman for the state agriculture department, said the agency is taking the employees’ complaints seriously.
Addressing one of the group’s main concerns that they aren’t earning the state’s new minimum wage of $10 per hour, Oxley said that after investigating the claim, she learned that the workers are in fact earning more than the minimum.
Oxley added that Department of Agriculture Director Mark Killian planned to come to Nogales on Tuesday to speak with staff and address issues they’ve brought up.
“I know there are concerns and their concerns are completely understood,” she said. “We’re really appreciative of all of the work they do when you consider how important that job is to not only the state, but Santa Cruz County and Nogales.
“We really want to figure out what’s at the root of this,” she added.
However, if a resolution isn’t reached promptly, it could have costly effects on the local produce industry.
Jungmeyer said Mexican grapes are in high demand right now and there are hundreds of trucks crossing every day that need to be inspected.
“Grapes are our big concern,” he said. “The grape season is the most vine-intensive single crop that we have, where we have hundreds and hundreds of trucks that need to cross each day. It’s a crucial time in the marketplace because there’s demand for these grapes.”
He added that though he was surprised, he was also “confident they’re going to work it out.”