Agri Leader

Speaking their own language helps farmers and workers

Rosa Garcia used to be a migrant worker, travelling throughout the U.S. with her family picking fruit and vegetables. Now the Sebring resident runs a local business that helps agricultural workers find work and manage their paperwork and payroll.

Garcia, who recently celebrated her 60th birthday, built Ag Labor Services in 2007 and Agristaff Services, a second company, in 2011. Indeed, her prior work experiences seemed to build on one another, each adding another piece to the puzzle that allowed her to become a successful entrepreneur.

Garcia was born in Texas to migrant parents of Mexican descent. She worked on farms and picked fruit with her parents and older brothers. "We picked tomatoes in Ohio, onions and peaches in Georgia, cucumbers and bell peppers in North Carolina, and cherries - big, beautiful black cherries in Travers City, Mich. Then we went to the beach!" she laughed.

Garcia described her life as a migrant worker as "wonderful" despite the hard work. Many families lived in the camps together, the kids were bused to school and older children worked in the fields. After work, families had dinner and spent time together.

"To me, this is like a race," she said, indicating the office setting which also employs her three daughters and her sister. "You always have to race to do this, to do that."

Garcia said as a field worker she would sometimes go into the state offices on business. "I would see these fancy people and always wonder. They were so educated," mused the woman who at that point only had an eighth-grade education.

But Garcia did not always have to wonder about those office workers. As a young married mother, she was afforded an opportunity to join their ranks. A Heartland migrant worker program aimed at getting field workers into other types of jobs was presented to her, and Garcia took an opening working for the state. At first they put her on the phones. Garcia recalled being overwhelmed by the ringing lines and flashing lights, but unknowingly she had a skill that was sorely needed in her new workplace - she was bilingual.

She quickly found herself in the crew leader department, helping the Spanish-speaking crew leaders renew their licenses and learning all about the state and federal regulations governing harvesters. While there, Garcia earned her GED, and, since it was now the late 1980s, began learning more and more about using the computer. "I went from making minimum wage, which was three-something an hour to making over 10 dollars an hour. I thought I was rich," she recalled with a laugh.

But there was a dark side to working in that office that made her look back fondly on her simpler migrant days. As she passed others by for raises and promotions, Garcia found her co-workers "rude" and "backstabbing."

Not long after that job, Garcia was approached by the unemployment office for a temporary position requiring a Spanish-English translator. When her contract ended, Garcia tried to find a quiet, easy job in the fast food industry, but instead was tracked down by two men wanting her help hiring and insuring harvesters.

"They railroaded me," she said bluntly. She looked at the paperwork they were using for the workers and recognized that it wasn't going to pass muster with the state. She helped the two men start a payroll company that would allow them to do business properly without violating any laws.

With Garcia's help, the first year the business ran $8 million in payroll. The second year, they had grown to $15 million and the year after that, $35 million. But when the company culture and leadership changed, Garcia soured on the opportunity. "They got big and fancy. They didn't want the harvesters coming into the fancy office. The girls said the harvesters stunk," Garcia recalled. Before quitting, the feisty woman told the managers, "They may stink of sweat because they are out there in the sun, but it is their stinking dollars paying your salary!"

Shortly afterward, Garcia and a partner opened a similar business on their own. Her partner passed away two years after the business opened, but Garcia has kept it going. She believes her company is successful because of their dedication to their clients, the harvesters.

"We're like the link between the farmers and the workers," Garcia explained. "We make sure the farmer is taken care of, that the people are insured, they get their paycheck, they make (at least) minimum wage, that state and federal regulations are met. It's not easy," she added.

She said that many harvesters make quite good money when they are paid by what they pick and not hourly. She also said that there are fewer families working the fields these days because of child labor laws; most harvesters are single. And the political talk about these workers hasn't translated into any real changes in the day-to-day operations, she said. It's all just been talk.

But the harvesters know that they can trust Garcia, who speaks their language both literally and figuratively. "We take care of the harvesters. It's very different when you've been there, and I've been where they are at," Garcia stated, adding that her office will often translate documents or help harvesters with other everyday problems for free. "I do everything I can to help them."