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Farmworkers get aid from U.S., Stephen Colbert

June 25, 2010|By Shan Li and P.J. Huffstutter, Los Angeles Times

What do you get when you mix farmworkers, Stephen Colbert, a stunt website and millions of dollars? A spotlight on those who toil in the sun.

On Thursday, Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis announced more than $78 million in grants awarded to provide employment training and support services to migrant and seasonal farmworkers nationwide.

California is the biggest recipient, with five grants totaling more than $20 million; 44 other states are due to receive at least one grant. The grants will be administered through the National Farmworker Jobs Program, a national organization that supplies job training and employment help for migrant and seasonal farmworkers.

"These grants will help farmworkers acquire new jobs, new skills and opportunities to upgrade their skills in the fields," Solis said.

Some funding will go into support services for workers' families, including literacy programs, child care, transportation and emergency healthcare.

Other efforts will focus on educating business owners about the necessity of paying minimum wage and punishing those owners who don't, a pervasive issue which "affects not just one population or one ethnic group," Solis said.

"This represents the first funding increase we've had in 20 years," said Ernie Flores, executive director of the Central Valley Opportunity Center Inc. a private job-training company in Winton, Calif., which will receive almost $2 million. "This will help both those who want to transition out of agriculture and those who wish to stay within it."

Meanwhile, the United Farm Workers union is pairing up with comedian Stephen Colbert to launch an oddball, politically driven bid: Invite unemployed Americans to work in the country's farm fields.

Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers, said both documented and undocumented farmworkers were weary of being blamed for the country's economic woes.

So the organization has launched a website that allows the public to apply for thousands of agriculture-related jobs that are listed with different state agencies nationwide. The campaign will be announced nationally next month on "The Colbert Report," which airs on Viacom's Comedy Central cable television network.

"We don't expect a large number of people to show up," Rob Williams, director of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project, said during a news conference Thursday.

Rodriguez agreed, noting that there were at least 1.4 million unauthorized farmworkers in the U.S.

"We need workers to fill these jobs," Rodriguez said. "Without these workers, the security of our food supply is threatened."

California has almost 150,000 farmworkers who tend crops, which is the highest concentration of any state, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

shan.li@latimes.com

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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