Where’s the leadership on labor?
Could Washington State develop a pilot program to bring in foreign guest-workers?
Lacking federal leadership to address a shortage of workers in agriculture, the Washington State Department of Agriculture is willing to work with the state’s growers to help them find workers to harvest their crops.
In the past, the tree fruit industry has relied heavily on migrant workers from Mexico. However, stricter border enforcement and tighter policies in some states towards illegal immigrants appear to be stemming the flow of workers. Most Washington apple growers reported worker shortages last fall.
Some growers shared workers with their neighbors. Another strategy was to pick high-valued varieties at the right stage of maturity and send the rest directly to processors rather than the fresh market. Some apples were left unpicked, according to the Washington Growers Clearing House Association.
The Washington apple industry needs around 40,000 workers at the height of harvest. Only about 2,000 workers are recruited annually through the federal H-2A guest-worker program, which growers say is difficult to use because of its inflexibility.
When growers reported insufficient workers last October, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire made prisoners available to help orchardists get their fruit harvested. Though only one company took up the offer, apple-picking inmates made the headlines.
“I think some of the things that happened this last harvest season have helped people to understand the significance of the labor shortage and the fact that we do need to have a solution,” said Dan Newhouse, director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture.
Agriculture has been one of the bright spots in the economy lately.
“I think agriculture is going to help pull this country out of these difficult budgetary times we’re in,” he said. “We have to make sure we can sustain the industry. We have to, as a nation, be able to come to grips with a solution that works.”
A solution in the form of immigration reform would need to come from the federal government, but Congress is at an impasse and progress seems unlikely until after the 2012 election.
Mike Wade, general manager of Columbia Fruit Packers, a growing and packing operation in Wenatchee, Washington, says that industry and politicians need to focus on what they can agree on, in order to solve the problem. He suggests that Washington State work with the tree fruit industry to put together a trial program to obtain essential workers, avoiding the two most contentious aspects of immigration reform: providing amnesty and rewarding lawbreakers.
Such a program would recruit domestic as well as foreign workers. If local people took the jobs, fewer foreign workers would be allowed in. It would provide no opportunity for citizenship and would penalize criminals. Workers would be guaranteed a fair wage because the minimum wage in Washington is the highest in the nation at $9.04 an hour.
Newhouse said that after learning about the lack of labor last harvest, Governor Gregoire asked the Department of Agriculture and other state agencies to look for both short-term and long-term solutions.
“I would be very open to a state like Washington taking a leadership position and showing Congress that something can be done,” he said. “Certainly, there’s too much on the line for us to continue the way we have been.”
He sees merit in Washington trying a pilot program, though the state would need a special dispensation from the federal government on matters relating to border security.
“I’m not sure of all the obstacles we would face,” he said. “But we would be open to the conversation on how we, as a state, could address this.”
Essential worker bill
In 2009, when Newhouse was a state legislator, the Washington State Farm Bureau pushed for state legislation to create an essential worker pilot program. Newhouse was among representatives from both parties who sponsored House Bill 1896, which would have required the Employment Security Department to petition the U.S. Congress to create an essential worker visa for aliens admitted into the country to perform seasonal work.
The pilot program would have:
• Allowed employers to request assistance from the state in hiring legal workers
• Directed the state to negotiate directly with other countries to provide workers
• Given local workers preference for jobs
• Charged employers a fee for services provided by the state
• Provided training, such as English classes, for essential workers
The bill had a hearing before the House Committee on Commerce and Labor but didn’t advance. Dan Fazio, who at the time was an attorney with the Washington Farm Bureau, said there was considerable opposition to the bill, particularly from worker-advocate groups.
Andrea Schmitt, attorney with Columbia Legal Services in Olympia, Washington, said her firm opposed the 2009 essential worker plan, firstly, because the state government has no business regulating immigration and, secondly, because the bill included no protections for workers from abroad, who are extremely vulnerable to exploitation. Columbia Legal Services’s mission is to protect and defend the legal and human rights of low-income people.
Schmitt said workers brought to work for a specific employer are unable to move to a different job if they’re unhappy with the conditions, and they cannot have family members with them.
“In order to get workers here from foreign countries—if that’s what we really need to do—we need to have a system with protection for the workers and treat the people like we would treat other members of our community,” she said.
In theory, it should possible to design a program that would be acceptable and that would treat guest-workers in an appropriate way, Schmitt added, but she was not confident that the growers would want to do everything that would be necessary.
“We’re cautious about the capacity of the state legislature working in tandem with growers to come up with the kind of program that would be fair to workers,” she said. “I’ve got a lot of feedback from growers that regulation is unnecessary because they really like their workers and they treat them well out of the kindness of their hearts. They don’t know what people are talking about when they say workers are exploited.
“I talk to thousands of farmworkers every summer, and I can tell you that in the quest to keep costs down on the farm—which may be economically necessary—people get exploited terribly.”
Fazio, now director of the Washington Farm Labor Association, said he cannot see how guest-workers are exploited when they have their fare paid from their home country and can earn $100 a day, compared with $8 a day in Mexico—if they had a job.
“I don’t agree that it’s better to have any kind of a job,” Schmitt said. “The workers come willingly but may not understand the full consequences.
“I think we should address the problem by allowing people who are in the United States to work in these jobs,” she added. “I think that’s something the federal government needs to get involved in.”
In November, a group of 17 agricultural companies and associations in Washington wrote to Governor Gregoire supporting the idea of convening a working group to discuss various ways to augment the work force. These might include hiring refugees, prison labor, or students, and using farm-labor contractors.
Newhouse said there should still be a push for a long-term solution from the federal government.
“There’s been an increased awareness of the problem, and there may be some opportunities for us to keep pushing the issue, and we want to capitalize on those opportunities. We will continue to work with our congressional delegation to help educate Congress in the need to come up with viable, long-term solutions.”