Chile labor program finally gets funded – but at less than half of what was asked for

By: - February 24, 2022 5:00 am

Red Chile ristras hang on display at Grajeda’s Farm in Hatch, New Mexico. (Photo by Santana Ochoa for Source NM)

A program boosting wages for chile laborers in New Mexico can start again, thanks to its inclusion in the state budget adopted last week. 

But the $1 million appropriation is less than half of what farmers and contractors were anticipating. They were hoping that $2.2 million remaining from $5 million initially set aside by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last summer would make its way to farmworkers. 

“It’s great news for us. Our goal was to get some money into that program. It wasn’t the $2.2 million we asked for, but we’re excited to get that million dollars put on the ground,” said Travis Day, executive director of the New Mexico Chile Association. 

He said the money will help boost wages for the rest of the red chile harvest. Though it’s unclear if this summer’s green chile harvest will have the benefit of wage boosts for workers, he said. 

Red chile and red tape

The program boosts wages for chile workers by up to $4.50 an hour, an effort to help with employment numbers amid a labor shortage in the chile-producing part of the state. 

Lujan Grisham pulled the money from federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. A couple of weeks before Christmas, the program came to an abrupt halt after $2.8 million had gone toward increasing wages. A ruling from the New Mexico Supreme Court decreed that the Legislature — not the governor alone — should have approved the spending of more than $1 billion in federal money.

Since then, the Chile Labor Incentive Program stalled, potentially reducing the red chile harvest and leaving farmers on the hook for wages they promised to workers at the beginning of the harvest. 

As lawmakers debated the spending, allegations of wage theft by a contractor reached the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces) and Sen. Crystal Diamond (R-Elephant Butte). An investigation by the Department of Workforce Solutions concluded no such theft occurred, but advocates working with chile laborers maintain that the program needs more safeguards to prevent wage theft by the companies that supply farms with laborers and that receive the state payouts to pass along. 

Steinborn said $1 million was as much as the sponsors could pull down for the program amid high demand for funds in the appropriations bill. Lawmakers approved the largest budget in New Mexico history totaling $8.72 billion. 

“That’s what we were able to get in the budget,” Steinborn told Source New Mexico, “…which itself was a hard fight with all other competing demands.”

Lujan Grisham still needs to approve the budget. She has until March 9 to do so. 

Kristie Garcia, a spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture, said the funding will be spent as reimbursements to farmers and contractors. Previously, the money was made available up front after farmers and contractors applied. 

The money can be sent to reimburse farmers who apply to receive it as soon as the governor signs the budget, Garcia said. 

The $2.8 million boosted wages for up to 3,000 chile laborers, the Governor’s Office said. 

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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.