CORRECTED: Washington growers embrace H-2A programCORRECTED Trying to eliminate some of the uncertainty in the labor market, more Northwest fruit growers are using guest agricultural workers supplied through the H-2A program.

According to an annual report by the Washington Farm Labor Association, Lacey, more than 6,000 foreign workers were certified to enter the state in 2013, an increase of nearly 50% compared with 2012. While it didn"t crack the top 10 among H-2A users a few years ago, the state now ranks fourth in terms of certified H-2A workers, according to the report.

With 56 grower applications from Washington filed in 2013, the report said double-digit growth is anticipated for several years.

The nonprofit Washington Farm Labor Association, a human resources provider for farmers in the Northwest, accounted for about 80% of all H-2A applications in Washington during 2013, according to Dan Fazio, director.

There is a concern over a tight domestic labor supply, he said.

"The farmers have decided they definitely need a legal and stable workforce," Fazio said.

For most Washington growers using the program, guest foreign workers account for between 10% to 25% of their crews, Fazio said.

Mike Gempler, executive director of the Yakima-based Washington Growers League, said he would not be surprised if the number of H-2A workers in the state increases by another 500 to 1,000 workers in 2014.

"As Congress has tried but failed to pass immigration reform, people are pressed against the wall," Gempler said.

Rather than an endorsement of its terms, the growth of the program reflects growers" desperate need for risk reduction, Gempler said.

With the agricultural workforce of more than 100,000 in Washington 50,000 are employed in the apple industry alone during harvest guest workers account for less than 10% of the total labor pool, Gempler said. The Washington Growers League works with Lovingston, Va.-based Mas Labor to bring H-2A workers to the state, Gempler said.

About 60,000 workers were in the H-2A program last year, said Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the Vienna, Va.-based National Council of Agricultural Employers.

Labor shortages of 30% to 40% several years ago motivated some growers into entering the program, he said.

"(Growers) have stable but high-demand business supplying people like Costco and international markets and you can"t afford a hiccup," he said.

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.

Big growth

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.