GEORGETOWN — After 29 years of helping farm workers elsewhere in the state find steadier employment, a federally funded program is now available in 17 counties in Central and Eastern Kentucky.
Kentucky Farmworker Programs Inc., a non-profit organization, opened an office in Georgetown in August. Its goal is to help migrant and seasonal farm workers secure full-time employment through job training and other services.
The program is for legal, permanent U.S. residents of all races, said Vickie Hutcheson, executive director of the program, which is based in Bowling Green.
Most clients "are people who are born and raised here," Hutcheson said. The program deals only with citizens who are in the United States legally.
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People served by the program might not "look like the typical farm worker that we think of, you know, with overalls, maybe an older man," said Evelyn Martinez, the employment and training specialist who meets with clients.
"They're women, they're men, they're young, they're old. They're educated, and some are not educated," Martinez said in her office at the Central Kentucky Job Center off West Main Street in Georgetown.
Counties in her territory are Anderson, Bourbon, Boyle, Clark, Estill, Fayette, Franklin, Garrard, Harrison, Jessamine, Lincoln, Madison, Mercer, Nicholas, Powell, Scott and Woodford. She also will serve people from outside that area.
Incorporated in 1981, Kentucky Farmworker Programs has delivered services since 1982, but its presence has been confined primarily to Western Kentucky or to southern counties on or near the Tennessee border.
The program doesn't have enough funding to cover the whole state, Hutcheson said, so offices are opened where it will help the most people land jobs.
The $1.2 million for the program comes from the U.S. Department of Labor, which administers the National Farmworker Jobs Program. The Labor Department does not consider working with horses as farm work, Hutcheson said.
But there was enough demand for the program to open an office in Central Kentucky.
The program's name is something of a misnomer because it is geared to finding better-paying jobs in the agricultural sector or outside it. For example, the program tries to find "upgraded" or managerial positions on farms for people or entry-level jobs off farms.
"We put them in various positions," Martinez said. "We work with any employer."
Small businesses make up the majority of employers where people are placed. Recently, Martinez has placed people with a company that does janitorial work at Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Georgetown.
"I think, last year, we worked with 68 different employers, and 54 of those had employees of 10 or less," Hutcheson said. "But we have worked with large employers, too."
Applicants must have done farm work during the past 12 to 24 months. The work might have included harvesting crops, such as hay; milking cows; caring for livestock; cutting or stripping tobacco; or helping produce trees and garden products in a nursery.
They must have done farm work for 25 days or earned $800 from farm work. They also must meet poverty guidelines, and the income of a spouse is factored into that consideration.
Applicants are asked to take reading and math tests to assess their skills. Applicants also give Martinez permission to check their previous work experience.
"We have to call and verify that they have actually done the farm work," she said. The total application process might take 30 minutes.
On-the-job training might be offered to some clients when the cost of that training can be underwritten by the program. The client is paid a wage by the employer, who is paid by the program for the cost of that training. Typical wages paid for clients in the program range from $8 to $13 an hour, Martinez said.
The program reimburses 50 percent of the wages paid by the employer for up to five months. The term of reimbursement varies, "depending on how hard the job is to learn," Hutcheson said.
Once a person is placed in the job, Martinez will keep in contact with him or her and with the employer.
Employers are expected to keep the employees on even after the reimbursement contract ends, she said. "And they cannot decrease the wages after the contract runs out."
Martinez has been making rounds throughout the region to let people know the program is available.
"There is money sitting here that I can use and help somebody with, but I have to find the people to help," she said.