New Mexico governor eyes $5 million to boost pay for chile workers

Aug. 6—Amid concerns a farmworker shortage could devastate New Mexico's chile harvest this year, the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is considering allotting $5 million in federal stimulus funds to temporarily raise their pay.

"Our plan is to make it happen, and we're working quickly to put the pieces in motion, but the details are still being finalized," Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor's press secretary, wrote Thursday in an email.

"Knowing how funds will make a difference and be most effective is a critical first step, and we're optimistic about doing so by supplementing wages," she added.

The executive director of the New Mexico Chile Association and a state senator who on Tuesday called for Lujan Grisham to immediately end supplemental unemployment benefits — which they contend are keeping workers at home instead of picking chile and other crops — applauded the plan.

"We are grateful for any help we can get to help save this industry," said Joram Robbs, the head of the chile association. "We're still waiting to hear what the whole plan is going to look like in terms of how that money is going to be used."

In a statement, Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, called the agriculture industry the backbone of the state's economy.

"For every community and family that relies on a strong harvest, this is a small step toward recovery," she said.

Diamond said she and the two other Republican legislators who asked Lujan Grisham to intervene appreciated her attention to the labor shortage affecting New Mexico's signature crop.

"While we cannot spend our way out of this problem, I hope this temporary aid will assist the family farms in desperate need of workers," she said.

Robbs said most chile pickers are paid between $15 and $19 an hour, which he called "good money" and "enough to compete with unemployment."

One of the long-term solutions for farmers is moving to mechanical harvesters, Robbs said. Currently, chile is harvested by hand.

"NMSU [New Mexico State University] has done research, as well as other private industries, on mechanically harvesting green chile for a long time," he said. "We're hopeful that we're close to having something that works. That would be a big help."

But for now, Robbs said he's hopeful the Lujan Grisham administration can execute its plan to supplement wages as an incentive for farmworkers.

Time is of the essence because the harvest season is about to begin in earnest, he said.

"We need to have it happen fast and not have bureaucracy take place here," Robbs said.

Robbs also said labor shortages have been an ongoing problem for farmers that was exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

"We've been seeing the decline in worker and field worker laborers over the last couple decades — for sure it's been decreasing," he said. "The COVID situation last year really amplified it, and then this unemployment situation that we're seeing this year has been even worse than last year, so it got worse in a hurry."

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.