Rather than waiting to see if domestic migrant workers show up, more growers are using the H-2A program to make at least part of their workforce more secure, he said.
The program also provides skilled workers that are highly motivated, Gasperini said.
“After the first couple of years, even though the costs are more, the (H-2A) program becomes more profitable because of their dependability and their reliability and the productivity,” he said.
The Washington Farm Labor Association’s report said the number of employers who are trying H-2A for the first time increased nearly 50% last year. Fruit crops, particularly apples and cherries, are driving demand for guest workers.
For 2014, Fazio said he expects more than 7,000 H-2A workers will be requested by Washington growers. Several new applications have been received from growers by the association, and all the members who used the program last year want to increase their commitment to the program in 2014, he said.
“What drives everything is the apple crop,” Fazio said.
During the two-month window of apple harvest, growers need a dependable workforce, Fazio said.
In the past, growers turned to the H-2A program only after failing I-9 audits that match workers with their Social Security numbers, Fazio said. Now, however, larger growers have been ramping up their commitment to the H-2A program, and Fazio said the association has been working with smaller growers to help make the program more affordable by sharing workers between growers. The program also benefits foreign workers, Fazio said. While in Mexico, those workers might earn $10 per day, but by working in the H-2A program picking fruit they can earn $100 per day, he said.
Fazio said the Washington Farm Labor Association also wants to attract domestic workers to the H-2A program as well, since foreign and domestic workers can benefit. Because domestic workers must be recruited before foreign workers are hired, domestic migrant workers also can gain from a higher guaranteed wage and free housing if they sign a contract to work during a specified period, Fazio said.
Fazio and Gempler said growers hope Congress can provide them a legal domestic workforce in addition to providing a way to source foreign workers through the H-2A program or another option when needed.
NOTE ON CORRECTION: The original article incorrectly linked the Washington Farm Labor Association with a labor contractor. The association has no affiliation with the contractor.