Report: farm labor tight in Washington - The Packer

Report: farm labor tight in Washington

06/04/2014 02:17:00 PM
Tom Karst

Early signs point to a tight farm labor market in Washington in 2014, and that prospect is causing industry advocates to search for possible relief.

The possibility of a record apple crop and early season grower reports of seasonal labor shortages were among topics discussed at a May 30 meeting between growers, industry advocates, and Washington State Department of Agriculture Director Bud Hover to discuss how the state agency can help ease the expected labor shortfall, according to meeting organizer Dan Fazio, director of the Lacey, Wash.-based Washington Farm Labor Association.

The meeting was in Pateros, a small town in Okanogan County. Fazio said the north central Washington county will have 2,500 H-2A workers to help ease the labor shortage in the fruit industry, Fazio said.

“Access to a stable workforce is a problem for growers,” Hover said in a news release from the labor organization. “While other state and federal agencies lead the programs involving labor, WSDA can play a role in helping growers navigate these programs and facilitate the conversations that I hope will lead to solutions for both growers and the workers that are so important to our agriculture industry.”

This year, Fazio is predicting about a 10% labor shortage to harvest the apple crop.

Statistics published in May by Washington State show the producer-reporter shortage of seasonal agricultural workers spiked to 14.3% in April, up from 5.2% in March and more than double the 5.8% shortage reported in April 2013.

Growers often cannot predict when they will experience shortages or why they occur, said Ignacio Marquez, labor liaison for the Washington Department of Agriculture.

“At the rate we are going it could get pretty serious, but you never know,” he said June 3.

The last significant labor shortage occurred in 2006, Fazio said, and that was the year that substantial numbers of apples fell to the orchard floor before they could be picked.

“The writing was on the wall,” he said, “We just didn’t have the domestic workforce.”

While he expects a labor shortage this year, Fazio said the growth of the H-2A program in the state will help ease the crunch.

Since 2007, the H-2A program has grown about 25% per year in Washington state, Fazio said. From less than 200 foreign guest agricultural workers in 2007, the number of H-2A workers increased to more than 6,200 workers in 2013. Through May 20 this year, the state has received 64 applications requesting 7,080 workers.

About 8,000 H-2A applications are expected for the state for all of 2014, he said.

Fazio said the Washington Farm Labor Association files about 80% of the H-2A guest worker applications in Washington state on behalf of its clients.

During the recent recession. producer-reported labor shortages were often below 2%. Now, with a strengthening economy and tighter border security, fewer workers are working in seasonal agriculture, he said.

While the California drought may send some seasonal workers to the Northwest, that shift hasn’t yet been reflected in producer reports of shortages, Fazio said.

That puts more pressure on the H-2A program, he said.

“Everyone knows that a guest worker program, whether it is H-2A or not, is what is going to save labor-intensive agriculture on the West Coast,” he said.

Fazio said the H-2A program needs reforms from Congress that will make it easier to use.

“We need a government that is not hostile to the program,” he said. “We need a program that makes it easier for farmers to do it legally than for farm workers to do it illegally.”

Fazio said current wages for the H-2A program in the state are $11.87 per hour, and with benefits the cost to growers is about $15 per hour.

Jim Colbert, business relations manager for Chelan Fruit, said in the release that providing for housing for guest workers is a challenge for small growers.

“A state program to assist growers in building more worker housing would sure help,” Colbert said in the release.

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