Walla Walla onion growers lament labor issues

06/07/2012 09:15:00 AM
Jim Offner

With the anticipation of potential profits from another Walla Walla sweet onion crop come another year’s worries about labor.

That’s a significant concern, growers say, as the politics of immigration reform during an election year and a Washington state minimum wage of $9.04 an hour collide with a crop that requires a lot of human effort to harvest.

“It’s all hand-harvested, and there was a little shortage of workers last year,” said Harry Hamada, manager of Walla Walla River Packing & Storage LLC, Walla Walla, Wash.

He said growers and shippers hope the situation is better for the upcoming deal.

Bryon Magnaghi, general manager of the Walla Walla Gardeners’ Association in Walla Walla, said he expects to have enough workers, but he also said the trend has not been positive.

“We anticipate having enough labor this year, but we continue to see a decline in the local labor force,” he said.

In the not-so-distant future, he said, the shortage of field workers could reach the critical stage.

“I know the growers are concerned about the new E-Verify coming into play,” Magnaghi said.

E-Verify is an Internet-based system that allows an employer, using information reported on a worker’s Form I-9, Employment Eligibility Verification, to determine the eligibility of that employee to work in the U.S.

“Eventually, it will make a difference,” Magnaghi said.

He said some growers are looking at alternatives like the H-2A program.

H-2A, a program with the U.S. Department of Labor, allows agriculture employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring non-immigrant foreign workers to the U.S. on a temporary basis.

Labor is most serious concern the industry faces, said Mike Locati, chairman of the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Marketing Committee and owner of Locati Farms in Walla Walla.

“We’re faced with huge labor issues statewide here, and it’s something that needs to be fixed,” said Locati, who grows Walla Walla sweet onions on about 50 acres.

Locati said growers and shippers can’t find a local labor source to do the work that has to be done.

“It’s a very contentious issue and really needs to be addressed at the state and federal levels, because we’re all being held hostage by it by E-Verify, INS coming in and raiding different operations and the H-2A program, which is so cumbersome, many can’t do it.”

The industry needs a stable, reliable labor supply, Locati said.

H-2A isn’t the answer, he said, because the rules don’t allow workers to cross state lines, even though product is grown in Washington and Oregon.

“We’d have to implement two programs for two different states. It just doesn’t work,” he said.

The issue transcends the short sweet onion deal, and the sooner the situation is resolved, the better, Locati said.

“I want to hire a legal workforce,” he said. “These are good people.”



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