Sean Ellis/Capital Press
BOISE — A bill that would allow Idaho agricultural operations to use inmate labor when enough workers aren’t available has made it to the full Senate.
The legislation would allow state inmates to work for agricultural employers to produce, harvest or process perishable Idaho farm commodities.
“This would help us make sure we get our perishable Idaho crops harvested” in the event of worker shortages, said Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, the bill’s author.
Lodge said fruit growers in southwestern Idaho have struggled to find enough workers in recent years and a lot of pears in the Sunny Slope region near Caldwell went unpicked last year.
Lodge, chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee, showed her fellow committee members two photos during a public hearing March 5. One showed pears hanging on trees in the Sunny Slope region last year and the other showed them on the ground.
“They have to be picked within a certain amount of time,” said Lodge, who owns Wind Ridge Vineyards near Caldwell. “They just didn’t have enough labor to pick the fruit so it was left hanging on trees.”
The bill was welcomed by Dan Symms of Symms Fruit Ranch, which grows apples, peaches, cherries, plums, apricots and prunes in the Sunny Slope area.
Some of Symms’ fruit went picked two years ago because of a lack of available labor and the operation struggled to get everything picked last year, he said.
“It would be a plus for us to be able to have that labor available to us,” Symms said. “It’s an issue for agriculture in general but for the fruit industry in particular.”
The inmates would make at least minimum wage and some of their earnings would help offset the cost of transportation and security. Lodge said the program would help reduce costs to the state and society because inmates’ earnings would go into a fund that would be used to pay restitution, child support and other court-ordered legal judgments.
Some of the money would go into the inmates’ commissary fund and some would be set aside to help them get a fresh start when they are released.
“This might be a win-win” for agriculture and society, Symms said.
The bill stipulates that the use of inmate labor cannot result in employed workers in the region being displaced.
Idaho Farm Bureau Federation President Frank Priestley submitted a written letter in support of the bill.
“This legislation provides an alternative labor source to agriculture producers and states that employed workers will not be displaced by the use of inmate labor,” Priestley stated.