I had the chance to chat Nov. 21 with Dan Fazio, owner of the Washington Farm Labor Association, Lacey, Wash. Fazio helps manage H-2A programs for growers in Washington state.
1:00 p.m. Tom Karst: How did the last couple weeks of apple harvest go in Washington state? Were growers able to find enough workers to finish the harvest?
1:01 p.m. Dan Fazio: There was (some) fruit left on the trees. We will have the result of (the harvest) pretty shortly. (Washington state) surveys about 900 growers every month and they ask them if they have enough workers. We had a 5% shortage in August. It spiked to a 8.9% shortage in September. The shortage was 6.7% in October. The governor declared an emergency because there wasn’t enough pickers and so they actually offered prison labor.
1:03 p.m. Karst: I was wondering how that experiment with prison labor went. How did the prison labor work out for the grower that used it?
1:04 p.m. Fazio: They have prison labor where the state does everything (transport workers, house them). One employer (McDougall & Sons Inc., Wenatchee) tried them for the apple harvest and they reported they did really well. It was only an experiment for a couple of weeks and they did a pretty good job.
1:05 p.m. Karst: So you have heard the prison laborers did all right?
1:06 p.m. Fazio: The prison laborers were pretty decent guys. They got in there and they are like, “We are here to work,. working is better than not working.” It is a crew they have from a minimum security prison in the state that does a lot of work with our Department of Natural Resources fighting fires. We are going to try to expand that program (in the future) to include a work release program. We’re having a summit Dec. 7th after the Washington State Horticultural Association meeting where Everyone will pitch for ways to get workers: the asylum seeker guys, the prison labor guy, the farm labor contractor, and the H-2A option.
1:07 p.m. Karst: What is the story about using asylum seekers for farm labor?
1:08 p.m. Fazio: We have a lot of refugees and asylum seekers in the state. There are over 1,000 people form all over the world seeking asylum and some of them are decent farm workers, so we have tapped into that program. We had about 300 (asylum seekers) in the field this year and probably about 100 or so made it through the harvest.
1:09 p.m. Karst: And you also manage H-2A programs in Washington state as well, right?
1:10: Fazio: We have 20 farmers that use the H-2A program, and I wrote the H-2A applications for 15 of the 20. So that is going to be another 3,500 people that come in through the H-2A program. So that creates workers for the guys that don’t use the H-2A program, those workers, that is 3500 more positions that are coming into the state.
1:11 p.m. Karst: What do you think were the causes of the labor shortage in Washington?
1:12 p.m. Fazio: We got lots of calls from newspapers who said, ‘Isn’t it terrible that because of the I-9 audits, you don’t get workers?” Or a writer with the Chicago Sun Times said that because of the crackdown on workers in Arizona and Alabama, growers in Washington didn’t have enough workers to pick their crop. And both of those - the I-9 audits and the crackdown on workers in Arizona and Alabama- had absolutely nothing to do with our worker shortages.
1:13 p.m. Karst: What were the causes of the labor shortage in the Northwest? Was it the late harvest?
1:13 p.m. Fazio: The first problem is that it is a really tough job and no one wants to do it. As a matter of fact, I would go so far to say that the crackdown on undocumented worker sin Arizona increased our labor supply because Washington is one of two states in the (U.S.) where an undocumented worker can get a drivers license from the state. Do you realize how huge that is? Think of yourself, if you are person that is undocumented, how are you gong to going to get a check cashed? How are you going to get unemployment?
1:14 p.m. Karst: So growers are worried about (the labor supply) but what are they doing to prepare for the future?
1:15 p.m. Fazio: Growers haven’t embraced the H-2A program because the Administration doesn’t want us to use it. The Obama Administration is trying to get us to not use the H-2A program because they don’t want us to solve our problem. It is so simple for me to understand it, but everyone is like, “Are you sure that is happening?”
Yeah, I'm sure. I’ve talked to the folks. Their problem is they want to legalize the people that are undocumented; we want to do that too, but we are not going to allow (Congress) to legalize the people who are undocumented unless they give us a guest worker program. Because if we legalize the people that are undocumented, that is great for the next three to five years. Then what are we gong to do? That’s where we differ with the Administration.
The Administration is saying, legalize people who are here now and then you won’t need a guest worker program. That’s exactly what we did in 1986. We legalized the people that were here and we did not get a guest worker program. Shouldn’t it tell you something that with all the I-9 audits, raids and all this other stuff people are doing to make it hard for people to hire undocumented people, that 70% of our seasonal work force is undocumented? (Growers) still hire them, because there is no alternative. They would rather hire legal workers if they could, but they can’t. The people that are doing H-2A are like crusaders in a way. We’ve kept doing business because we believe in the idea of a legal and stable work force at an affordable price and that is what we are pushing for. We’ve got a lot of interest in H-2A programs, and we have done a lot of innovate type stuff, getting two or three growers together, making things work. It would just be better if the government would helps us instead of hindering us.