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Working In The Fields

Agustin Fonseca, operations manager at Atkinson Staffing, trails off as he lists all the crops his workers help produce.

The labor contractor’s migrant workers, as the seasonal employees are often called, seem to dip their hardened hands into the soils of nearly every crop in northeastern Oregon’s farming economy.

At Atkinson Staffing, the largest farm labor contractor in the area, it’s the season of poplar trees. Perfectly lined rows of the skinny winter stems stretch for 26,000 acres just east of Boardman.

There are clusters of people in between the trees, chopping intermittent rows. The Atkinson employees work for minimum wage, six days per week for 10 hours a day — eight hours a day if business is slow. There are no sick days or health insurance.

Fonseca said the workers gladly take the long hours, even though there is no such thing as overtime pay in agriculture.

“They’re always thinking they can get a little bit more,” Fonseca said.

There is about a month when there is no work at the labor contractor. Workers might go someplace else or save up and ride out the unemployement. Fonseca goes down to Salem to manage crews chopping down Christmas trees.

Jose Tena, Sergio Garcia and Dago Silva are chopping down poplar trees to be planted in another field. Tena, 29, uses a chainsaw to make the cut over and over and over again.

Tena wears a baseball cap and jacket that read “Atkinson Staffing.” With three children, ages 5, 2 and 1, in his Hermiston home and parents to take care of in Mexico, Tena said he appreciates the work.

“I miss Mexico a lot,” Tena said in Spanish through translation by Eddie de la Cruz, chair of the Hermiston’s Hispanic Advisory Committee. In 2000, he left his hometown of Michoacan, Mexico, to find work. He’s been in Hermiston ever since.

Atkinson Staffing employs mostly Hispanic immigrants. In Hermiston, where the labor contractor is based, Hispanics made up about 37 percent of the 2010 census. De la Cruz said if undocumented immigrants are counted, that number is more like 50 percent.

Although there are a few others in Atkinson Staffing’s mix of around 450 workers.

“I want to say it’s a pleasure working with these folks from Mexico,” said worker Roman Garcia, 52, who came from Milwaukee, Wis. “They work the way my father raised me to work.”

Fonseca said he has some people come in who have never earned money through farm labor. Working in the open skies, they often “only last a couple hours.”

J. Isabel Altamerano, 51, is cutting poplar branches into 18-inch sections at Boardman Tree Farm. Employed by Atkinson Staffing, Altamerano has a wife and six children in Mexico.

He sends much of his wages across the border to his family, but he hasn’t been able to raise the money to see them in eight years.

The Alcapulco, Mexico, native said he is glad to be working at Atkinson because the company provides transportation to work and offers them a lot of hours.

“I can work at a lot of different fields,” Altamerano said in Spanish. “I’m really happy with that.”

De la Cruz, 46, is translating for some of the workers. He spent his youth as a migrant worker, coming to Hermiston in 1976 to work in the asparagus fields. Now he owns his own janitorial business while his wife works the night shift at Shearer’s Foods, a potato chip factory.

“I know what hard work this is but they’re hungry for the work,” de la Cruz said. “These are the skills they have.”

Contact Natalie Wheeler at or 541-564-4547.

This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.

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