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Jon DeVaney

Jon DeVaney

The political landscape may change in unknown ways in the Washington state capital in 2018, but we can make some general predictions about what issues affecting the tree fruit industry may come up for discussion based on long-term trends.

Broadly, these areas of concern are labor and taxes.

Our industry has been dealing with a difficult and worsening labor market for so long that it is easy to overlook the extent to which this trend may be accelerating.

Most of us have noted the rapidly expanding use of the H-2A visa program in our state, likely associating it with the increasing emphasis on immigration enforcement and border security coming out of Washington, D.C.

However, it is important to recognize the tightening that all labor markets — not just agriculture — have been experiencing.

The national unemployment rate in September of 2017 was 4.2 percent, which is the lowest figure in 17 years.

This number has added validity as the broader (U-6) unemployment rate that includes underemployed or involuntary part-time workers, after peaking at 17.1 percent in 2009, has returned to a pre-financial crisis level of 8.3 percent. And this national trend is being seen locally as well.

The Washington State Department of Employment Security reported August unemployment rates for Yakima and Wenatchee labor markets that are the lowest seen since electronic record keeping began 27 years ago.

While this may be good economic news overall, it signals increasing competition for workers with a diminished pool of reserve labor capacity.

From a policy perspective, this means that employees — individually and collectively as voters — will become increasingly assertive in seeking increased wages and benefits.

This can already be seen in the easy passage of Washington initiative 1433, which increased the state minimum wage and created a paid sick leave benefit in 2016.

This was immediately followed by the Legislature’s passage of a new mandatory paid family and medical leave benefit in 2017.

What might be next? Seattle passed a local ordinance known as “secure scheduling” that took effect in July 2017.

The ordinance applies to retail and food service businesses with 500 or more employees and requires 14-day notice of work schedules.

Employers are further required to pay half of any scheduled hours that are canceled and premium pay for any hours that the employer adds to a worker’s schedule.

Just as the higher minimum wage was passed locally before being adopted statewide, we should expect calls for this requirement to expand statewide and to other industries.

It is also common to see proposals surface in California and then spread to other states.

In 2016, California passed legislation phasing-in an overtime requirement for agricultural workers that would require time-and-a-half pay for workers exceeding 9.5 hours per day or 55 hours per week starting in 2019, stepping down to 8 hours per day and 40 hours per week in 2022.

While agriculture is currently exempt from Washington’s overtime law, this is being challenged in a pending lawsuit against a dairy employer.

Depending on the outcome of this lawsuit and of legislative elections, proposals like California’s could be put forward in Olympia or to the voters by initiative.

Finally, there is taxation. The Seattle City Council recently passed a municipal income tax ordinance of 2.25 percent on single filers over $250,000 and joint filers over $500,000.

Their expressed purpose is to overturn State Supreme Court precedent that prohibits graduated income tax as a violation of the state constitution’s requirement that all taxes must be “uniform upon the same class of property.”

If the Seattle ordinance is upheld, calls for a state income tax would follow almost immediately. Regardless of the outcome of the income tax debate, advocates for more revenue in the Legislature will continue to target the elimination of tax preferences.

While some call these preferences corporate welfare for “fat cats,” agriculture benefits from several of these (such as the exemption from the Business and Occupations tax on gross receipts) in recognition of the cyclical, low-margin and internationally competitive nature of agricultural production.

Explaining that agriculture does pay its fair share and ensuring that our industry is not harmed by proposed changes is an ongoing challenge.

Being informed about these issues can shape your business plans and how you vote in elections, but is there anything you can do as a concerned member of our industry to affect what happens in Olympia? The answer is yes, you can. Your WSTFA staff works all year to explain the value of our industry and explain how proposed laws would impact you.

But there is nothing more powerful than for legislators to hear directly from growers and handlers. It is with this in mind that we have our annual Tree Fruit Day in Olympia, where groups of industry volunteers meet with legislators to discuss our industry and its priorities.

With appointments already made, an experienced group leader to keep you on track and a briefing on the issues and our positions, all you really need to do is show up and tell your story.

So, will you show up?

Tree Fruit Day 2018 is Tuesday, Jan. 30, and you can get more information at wstfa.org/tree-fruit-day. •

– by Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association. He can be reached at jon@wstfa.org.