Behind the Scenes in Santa Land | News Feature | Indy Week
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Behind the Scenes in Santa Land 

In North Carolina's Christmas tree country, Hispanic workers are getting Scrooged

The outside world slips away in the Christmas tree lot. Walls of evergreens muffle the sound of rush-hour traffic inching through downtown Carrboro. Overhead, a single string of white lights illuminates the rows of trees and keeps out the night. There is no escape from the sweet smell of pine. It's like having 300 air fresheners hanging from a single rearview mirror. At the end of one row, a couple stands together, hand in hand. They appear overly dressed in North Face parkas and leather gloves.

The man's head is cocked examining a 7-foot tree. He likes it. She doesn't. She's put off by the single "branch thing" at the top. It's crooked, she says. It's called a "leader" and the tree she's inspecting is a spectacular Fraser fir. It has a sturdy gooseneck, a thick handle, and beautiful whorls that fan out like hunter green umbrellas turned upside down. It's not perfect, she says, so they move on down the next row.

Hispanic workers in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina have a word to describe Christmas trees: lujo. It means luxury and it refers to trees and all the luxurious trappings of the season: long strings of white pine garland draped over mantelpieces, wreaths complete with pine cones hung on doors and the brightly colored trees tucked in the corners of living rooms.

These are the images of Christmas, but few see the roots of labor beneath each tree and behind every wreath. There are cracked lips from the cold, arms numb from the chainsaws, hands sore from shearing, houses with no heat and wages withheld after a long day's work. Many of these hardships run deep in the Christmas tree industry in North Carolina. The U.S. Department of Labor has even filed a complaint against the growers for not paying fair wages. This year will be a record year in sales and profit for the industry. Everyone came out ahead--everyone except for the Hispanic workers who cut the trees and made the wreaths.

Back in the Carrboro tree lot, an attendant approaches the couple. They're looking over another Fraser fir, cut and bundled for shipping by workers making $5 an hour. The attendant says, "That one is $56."

Sparta, N.C., is a Christmas-tree town. The holiday is marked by two events. There's the annual choose-and-cut day where people from all over the state come to choose and cut their own Christmas tree. And there's the Christmas parade, which features the high-school band, Cub Scouts, and antique cars.

Christmas is big money here in Alleghany County. Many of the nation's trees come from this northwest corner of the state. North Carolina is the second largest producer of trees in the country--second only to Oregon. About 800,000 trees were sold in Alleghany County this year, according to the Alleghany Cooperative Extension.

There are more than 1,600 Christmas-tree growers. Most are family operations producing 34 million trees on 23,000 acres.

This year, growers and retailers are having a bounty year selling more trees and making more money than ever. Wholesale prices have jumped between 5 and 8 percent, says Bill Glenn, a marketing specialist with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in Asheville. This season, growers expect to harvest 4.5 million trees and net more than $100 million.

"I suspect that when we all sit down in January sometime it will turn out to be the best season ever," Glenn says.

But while industry profits continue to rise, pay for many workers remains below minimum wage. Every year, say the workers behind the scenes of this lucrative business, Christmas seems to pass them by.

Antonio has been cutting Christmas trees since 1986 when he was just 17. He says there were few Mexican workers back then, but their numbers grew as the industry expanded. It was a lonely time because locals around Sparta treated them as if they were invisible. They had a hard time finding places to eat and shop, so they kept to themselves.

"Not all the people behaved good towards us," he says.

Still, the local economy depended on their contributions. The workers sweat out 14 to 16-hour days during the peak season to earn money to send home to their families. They work as much as their bodies can stand to make as much money as they can. When the season is over, many move on to other seasonal farm jobs in Florida.

Antonio says the growers paid better in the early days. Then the industry started to boom, and now the workers are paid less than they were 15 years ago.

Over the last decade and a half, workers from Mexico and other parts of Latin America have fueled the expansion of the Christmas tree industry with their cheap labor. Many register with the Department of Labor as an H-2A guest worker, like Luis, who says he's supposed to make $7.06 an hour with time and a half for overtime. But the overtime pay never comes. When all is said and done at the end of the week, he will come out making around $5 an hour, below minimum wage. For undocumented workers, the pay can be even less.

"Many of them [the growers] are not paying overtime," says Mary Lee Hall, managing attorney for the farmworker unit at North Carolina Legal Services.

In 1998, the Department of Labor filed a complaint against several North Carolina Christmas-tree growers and the North Carolina Growers Association for not paying its workers overtime. The Fair Labor Standards Act provides that non-agricultural workers receive overtime pay. The labor department classifies Christmas-tree workers as non-agricultural. But the growers do not want to pay for the overtime, which can run tens of thousands of dollars for an 80-man crew. The growers say the workers are doing agricultural labor and are exempt from overtime pay.

For the last three years, the complaint filed on behalf of the workers has languished in U.S. District Court. Meanwhile, the growers have continued to keep their payrolls low and their profits high. (Pat Gaskin, president of the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association, declined to comment on the overtime case.)

"They're not going to pay for overtime until they are forced to," says James Knoepp, a staff attorney with the Virginia Justice Center.

Workers sign up for the guest-worker program thinking they will get paid for their work plus overtime, says Knoepp. They come with the expectation of working tremendous hours during the seven-week season. Only when they get their paychecks do many learn that the pay is less than they expected.

A few miles north of Sparta, just over the Virginia state line in Independence, sits the Osborne Motel. The motel is a ramshackle mini-village with three sets of buildings. There is a front office building, a two-story building where the majority of the rooms are located, and a third building off to the side that also contains a closed-up restaurant and Laundromat.

For Christmas-tree workers two seasons ago, the Osborne offered a last chance when it came to finding a place to stay. Conditions for the workers at the Osborne were terrible. The owners segregated them from their other guests, housing several workers in a basement.

"The housing here is chinga!" said Luis at the time, seated in the back of a van with four other Christmas-tree cutters, smoking, listening to music known as corridas and getting drunk. He had long stringy black hair and a thick mustache that curved over his upper lip. He was dressed in a fake brown leather jacket that rode up high on his stomach.

"We rent down there in the basement," said Luis. "I wasn't going to pay him his 35 pesos [dollars] because of the pinche water in the room."

The bathroom toilet across the hall from his room overflowed the week before, flooding his room and soaking his mattress on the cement floor. When asked if he had hot water, he laughed. "What hot water? It pours on the floor! What heat? Nothing," he said. "No refrigerator! Nothing. We got nothing. I've got a pinche mattress thrown on top of the water."

The motel was eventually shut down after the Virginia Justice Center filed suit in response to the living conditions. They won a $160,000 judgment in the case, but the Osborne family fled, abandoning the motel without paying up.

Around the same time, the city of Sparta responded to complaints about workers living in an old, brick school building. Inside, classrooms were converted into makeshift quarters for the workers. Windows were broken and mattresses were worn out. The place was not fit for human habitation and the town of Sparta closed it down. But, in its place, came other, equally abysmal accommodations.

Today, affordable housing remains scarce for Christmas-tree workers and many who do not stay in housing at the tree plantations take whatever they can find. They live in trailers, shacks, dilapidated houses, and even abandoned school buses during the chilly cutting season that runs from October through November.

In fact, the problem with substandard housing has lingered without remedy since 1995, when North Carolina Legal Services first investigated the living conditions of Christmas tree workers. At the time, they found the housing to be woefully inadequate, especially given the region's brisk mountain climate.

Some housing has improved, "but you will still find places without heat, where people are crowded together sleeping on the floor," says Hall with N.C. Legal Services.

Growers are required to provide housing under the Department of Labor's guest worker program. The program allows employers to use foreign workers when they can't find enough American laborers. Growers must provide housing that meets the labor department's standards, and many do. But, according to farm-labor advocates and the workers themselves, some growers stash undocumented workers in substandard housing with no heat and no hot water.

As Hall put it, "This is not a place to be taking cold showers."

In a warehouse on the outskirts of Sparta, past rolling hills cleared for tree farms, is Santa's real workshop. It's where Christmas is processed, packaged and shipped. But there are no jingle bells here. Instead, the sound of ranchero music blares across the giant shop.

The Hispanic workers stand at wooden tables that line the edge of the warehouse. They tape their hands up like boxers. On top of each table is a black machine used to sew cut branches of white pine. The workers take long, hairlike lengths of white pine and stitch them together to form hundreds of yards of garland; the decoration used to line fireplaces, mantels and balconies.

Wreath makers take the yards of garland and fasten one end to a machine with a thin metal wheel. They spin the garland into a fancy Christmas wreath, then tie the wreath together and throw it into a large cardboard box for shipping.

In the storage area at the far end of the warehouse, a lone worker is busy making a different kind of wreath. He uses scissors to cut small thick Fraser fir branches, then arranges the branches on a double-ringed hoop. He sews each clump of branches with a machine to the hoops.

"It is a lot of work to make this product," says Esteban. "Either the Americans don't know it is a lot of work to do this or they ignore it."

Esteban is one of the few master wreath makers. He makes the beautiful intricate Fraser fir wreaths by hand. He takes much pride in his work and crafts each wreath as if it were to hang on his own door. "My wreaths don't come undone, they don't look like they are missing teeth," he says.

Esteban has been making double-faced wreaths, the kind where branches radiate from the front and back, for more than 13 years. He can make a wreath in six, seven minutes, or faster if he wants to. He makes more than 100 per day. But the beautiful wreaths come at a price. Each day he wakes up to pain in his hands. And when there is no pain, there is numbness.

"You can't start working until your hands warm up," he says. "Your hands get swollen. Your shoulder hurts. You have to be conditioned to do this work."

The same goes for the workers who cut and bundle the trees out on the farms.

"My arms hurt every day, my shoulders, but mostly my arms, right here, the forearms," says Antonio. "When you cut the trees you do get tired because the machine is very heavy and it vibrates."

Then there's the bending, up and down, lifting and cutting, hour after hour. "Maybe this will hurt me bad one day," says Antonio, considering the toll of tree work.

That work has helped guarantee another highly profitable season for North Carolina tree growers. The Department of Labor's efforts to force tree growers to pay their workers overtime remains tied up in federal court. And Esteban, perhaps the faster wreath maker in North Carolina, still feels like he should be paid more, considering his talent and skill.

"Because I am Hispanic, I cannot make more than $80 or $100 a day," he says starting another wreath. "No matter how hard you work, you cannot make more than that. If you produce $500 worth of earnings for an American, he will want to take $450 and give you $50."

Esteban holds up a wreath. "They hang this on their door to say, 'Look, look at this pretty thing of ours.' But they didn't make it. We made it. It is pretty because our hands are dirty." EndBlock

Paul Cuadros of Pittsboro spent time interviewing and photographing tree workers during the 2000 tree season. He changed the names of those he quoted.

  • In North Carolina's Christmas-tree country, Hispanic workers are getting Scrooged.

More by Paul Cuadros

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