By Kelli Dugan
MOBILE, Ala (Reuters) - The problem facing Alabama's agribusiness sector after passage of a tough new immigration law is a fairly straightforward one of labor availability, and employers are looking at a variety of possible solutions.
"Everybody knows, I think, that we've got a problem with agribusiness labor," John McMillan, Alabama's agricultural commissioner, told a crowd of more than 200 gathered on Tuesday in Mobile, Alabama.
With only weeks until nursery and greenhouse owners need to start placing plant orders for 2012 crops, the economic impact of Alabama's new law is already reverberating through the abruptly understaffed sector, still reeling from a fall harvest nearly ground to a halt by enactment of the measure.
Among other provisions the law requires police to detain people they suspect of being in the United States illegally if they cannot produce proper documentation when stopped for any reason. The result has been to cause many undocumented workers to leave the state and others to stay away, observers say.
Ideas proposed during Tuesday's forum were as varied as the interests represented.
They ranged from prison labor and community re-entry programs to more aggressive recruitment of Alabama's unemployed workers and the creation of farm cooperatives to share the financial burden of supporting a guest-worker program.
Kenyen Brown, U.S. Attorney for Alabama's Southern Federal District, said part of his job is protecting the community, but prosecuting offenders is only one side of that coin. The "less publicized" side, he said, is helping offenders re-enter their communities after incarceration.
He said housing, drug treatment and employment are the three biggest hurdles facing ex-offenders upon release, and Alabama's labor shortage presents an excellent opportunity for employers to address their payroll crunches.
Brown outlined a tax credits available to employers who hire former prisoners and pointed to a job fair that promised employers 150 available job applicants but yielded 400.
"All we ask is that you give them a chance, give them an interview," Brown said.
Kenny Harris, 47, of Mobile pleaded with members of the panel and the audience to take Brown's words to heart because as a twice-convicted felon, Harris remains unemployed.
"At some point a man who's made some bad decisions in his life becomes motivated to change from what he was doing to what he needs to do to survive and provide for his family ... Just please give us a chance," Harris said, drawing loud applause.
Robert Brantley, employment director for the Alabama Department of Industrial Relations, urged employers to take advantage of the department's free job-matching services and extensive network of 45 career centers statewide that can be called upon to pre-screen applicants and speed along the interview process when time is short.
Jeff Williams, deputy commissioner for the Alabama Department of Corrections, told the crowd to also consider the state prison system's active work-release program for which only about 2,600 of the state's 26,000 inmates are eligible.
Agricultural commissioner McMillan is also looking to the faith-based community to help recruit and facilitate employment.
And Rodolfo Alvarez, CEO of Arizona-based Guest Worker Services, engaged in bringing Mexican and Latin American workers to the country on 10-month guest worker visas, said:
"If you don't put your foot on the pedal right now you guys are going to be scrambling for whatever ... workers -- even out of Mexico -- you can find," Alvarez said, encouraging the formation of cooperatives to help offset the financial burden of navigating the red tape involved for guest workers and even offering competitive amenities such as housing.
"We have the legal workforce that is needed," he said. "All we have to do is work together."
(Editing by Jerry Norton)