Social Security stolen in sweat of farm workers

March 19, 1992|By Donna St. George | Donna St. George,Knight-Ridder News Service

BELLE GLADE, Fla. -- All those years stooping into the earth. All that time planting beans from dawn until dark, chopping cotton in the withering Southern sun, plucking tomatoes from pesticide-dusted vines.

At 83, Roman McKelvin is a thin wisp of a man with memories of harvest but almost nothing to show for the labor: no savings, no pension, no land, not even Social Security.

"They said I didn't work enough," he says softly, glancing down at his rough, willing hands and at the legs that were amputated when his circulation clotted.

The words sound implausible. If only they were.

In a country where Social Security is considered every worker's birthright, tens of thousands of farmhands like Mr. McKelvin have been cheated out of even this meager pension -- the only nest egg most ever have after a life at poverty's edge.

It is a tragedy of almost immeasurable proportions: In Belle Glade and other hamlets far off the beaten track, bent and broken Americans who have toiled in the fields their whole lives to put vegetables on the tables of others are left to subsist on nothing but welfare handouts.

Their condition is rooted in a farm labor system that is often lorded over by corrupt crew leaders who literally steal the workers' Social Security withholdings -- with the full knowledge of farm owners and government agencies such as the Department of Labor and IRS.

In its first comprehensive look at farm workers since 1973, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, issued a report last month that said many workers had been cut off from their Social Security and left to drift with little to subsist on in their most vulnerable years.

The Social Security Administration's own statistics revealed that agricultural employers were more than three times more likely than those in other industries to report workers' earnings inaccurately. The result: Many elderly farm workers get smaller checks than they deserve -- or no checks at all.

No one knows how many people are affected, but in Florida, legal-service lawyers say more than 80 percent of the farm workers for whom they request records have been swindled out of Social Security at some point in their lives.

"I would say almost every farm worker in the entire country would suffer from this to some extent," said Kay Mares of Texas Rural Legal Aid. "Even those who have had the good fortune to work primarily for someone who complies with the law probably worked at another time for someone who did not comply."

Knowing the rules

On one side of Avenue E in Belle Glade is the "loading ramp," a vast gravel parking lot filled with rickety old school buses. Farm workers line up here before sunrise every morning. If it's a good day and a good money crop such as corn needs picking, they'll be driven to a field a half-hour away and paid, perhaps, $50 to pull ears off the stalks.

On the other side of Avenue E is Julia Bush's storefront benefits office. Ms. Bush, a college graduate who worked the fields nine years herself, is one of few people in this remote, segregated capital of sugar cane who knows the rules that separate the destitute from their subsistence.

This tiny office sees the faces of disappointment every day -- farm workers who have knelt in fields year after year, worked in construction or the cab business after the growing season ended, or become ill or injured by their 50s and then tried to collect Social Security disability or retirement benefits.

They are workers like Layth L. Gurley, who will be 62 next month and is trying to collect Social Security retirement.

On this day, Mr. Gurley pulls his wallet from the tattered pocket in his dingy trousers and finds the little white sheet that is his Social Security earnings record. In 1984, it says, he made only $30. For 1986, it reports $529.12.

"I know it's way wrong," he said glumly.

Mr. Gurley knows this piece of white paper is his future. It means he will get only $250 a month from Social Security -- not enough to eat every day and pay rent even in the poorest section of rundown, rotted-out Belle Glade.

Ms. Bush guesses that if all of Mr. Gurley's employers had paid into Social Security, his monthly benefit would probably be about $300 more.

The government hasn't gone after crew leaders who pocket the money -- or who neglect to make the deduction -- because no federal agency will take that responsibility.

The Department of Labor does not check Social Security withholding records when it grants licenses, and it doesn't require crew leaders to present proof that they have paid taxes.

Labor Department spokesman Sol Sugarman said his agency had only 38 agents nationwide to enforce farm labor laws, and "our people aren't looking at Social Security as a main part of their job. Social Security [officials] should be doing this."

Of course, that's not the way Social Security officials see it.

"I'm not going to assume there's intentional fraud out there," said Patricia Butler, the agency's associate commissioner for public affairs, who added that an effort was under way to educate growers, crew leaders and farm workers about Social Security.

Catching violators is the Labor Department's job, she said.

Others who represent farm workers say the IRS is best positioned and legally mandated to track down violators. The IRS has said crew leaders often don't send in their workers' withholdings. But only occasionally does the IRS nail a crew leader.

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