Make sure you got paid enough to harvest chile this year

Is your employer’s name on this list?

By: - December 21, 2021 6:00 am

A worker sorts through piles of harvested red chile at Grajeda’s Farm in Hatch, N.M. in December 2021. (Photo by Santana Ochoa for Source NM)

Occasionally, farmworkers call New Mexico Legal Aid worried they’ve been cheated out of their bonus or pay boost — the state-funded wage increase aimed at curbing a labor shortage to protect this year’s chile crop.

It’s a valid fear, said attorney Ismael Camacho, but he doesn’t know what to tell them. 

That’s because the New Mexico Department of Agriculture never publicly released a list of contractors and farmers who received the money on behalf of workers. A worker could tell Camacho the name of his or her contractor, but Camacho would have no way of knowing if that contractor got the wage boost meant for them. 

The Agriculture Department last week promptly provided the list to Source New Mexico, which has published it below. It contains 17 growers, processors and contractors who received $2.8 million between them on behalf of about 3,000 workers. 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced the Chile Labor Incentive Program in August, a $5 million fund that would chip in money to pay chile laborers more to protect the state’s signature crop. At the time, the state estimated that it was experiencing a 45% drop in chile laborers, which amounted to about 1,350 workers. 

The governor extended the program in November through the winter, which is when the red chile harvest and processing takes place. The state fund would pay up to $4.50 an hour to increase laborer pay up to $19.50 an hour. The funding comes from the federal American Rescue Plan. 

The program boosted workers’s pay until Dec. 3, when Agriculture Secretary Jeff Witte announced it had come to an abrupt halt. Per a New Mexico Supreme Court ruling, the Governor’s Office is prohibited from spending money from the American Rescue Plan Act. Instead, the New Mexico Legislature must spend it. 

Red chile labor program comes to abrupt halt due to fight between governor and Legislature

The chile wage program will likely be resurrected during the upcoming legislative session that begins Jan. 18, lawmakers said. They still have about $2.2 million left in the fund for farmworkers. People will be able to file for backpay for wages they should have gotten while the program was suspended. 

Camacho, who heads Legal Aid’s Farmworker Project, said it’s entirely possible that a contractor who received money could have cheated workers out of their extra wages, though he is not aware of it happening. 

The way it would work is that a contractor could find and hire farmworkers, many of whom don’t know about the program, at the minimum wage of $10.50 an hour. Then the contractor could apply for the wage program, list their names and pocket that cash, despite it being intended for the worker. 

“All you’re required to do is pay minimum wage,” Camacho said. “So if you’re the farm-labor contractor, you can basically keep whatever you want.”

It’s common — especially for smaller farmers — to hire contractors to find laborers, Camacho said, because it spares them the headache of searching and hiring and the resulting paperwork. 

Kristie Garcia, spokesperson for the Agriculture Department, said that contractors who apply must affirm in their application that they are honestly listing the names of employees who would receive the additional wages. The information they provide could be audited, as well, and that warning is on the application. 

“They do have to sign and certify that everything is accurate,” Garcia said. 

Glen Duggins, president of the New Mexico Chile Association, enrolled an employee in the wage boost program for the red chile harvest on his farm. He said the program has been largely helpful to farmers like himself, and he was frustrated to see the announcement that it stopped. He said he’s unaware of anyone scamming the system. 

“There’s always room for somebody crooked,” he said. “But I don’t think so.”

Do you see the name of the farmer, grower or contractor you work for on this list?

Did you not receive a wage boost this year?

Call Source New Mexico at (505) 933-9013 if you’d like to talk to us for a news story.

Call attorney Ismael Camacho at (575) 541-3826 if you’d like to talk to an attorney.

Contractors

  • Jimenez Farm
  • Jose Moreno
  • Malenas Harvest LLC
  • Piscadores Contracting Services
  • Nietos Farm Labor, Inc

Growers

  • Grajeda Farms, Hatch NM
  • ​​Glen S. Duggins, dba Cinco Estrella Chile
  • Big Jim Farms
  • Adams Produce, Inc
  • Adrian R. Ogaz
  • Silverleaf Family Farms, LLC
  • Cervantes Farm Operations, LLC

Processors

  • El Encanto, Inc.
  • Biad Chili LT CO -Leasburg
  • Garcia’s Kitchen
  • Olam Americas, Inc.
  • Seco Spice Company

 

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard. Along the way, he's won several state and national awards for his reporting, including for an exposé on a cult-like Alcoholics Anonymous group and a feature on an Upstate New York militia member who died of COVID-19. He's thrilled to be back home in New Mexico, where he works to tell stories that resonate and make an impact.

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