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Tom Roach outlined labor options at a recent Washington Growers League meeting.

Tom Roach outlined labor options at a recent Washington Growers League meeting.

Growers worried about securing a work force for the coming year have few viable and legal alternatives to the federal foreign guest-worker program known as the H-2A program. The alternatives might work for those needing small numbers of workers, but don’t expect them to be a salvation to the potential labor shortage, says an attorney from  ­Washington State.

The non-H-2A options to securing workers include student visas, putting prisoners to work, immigrant visas (green cards), and refugees. Tom Roach, a lawyer specializing in immigration law from Pasco, Washington, said that while there are a few legal avenues to supplement the U.S. work force, none of the programs are really suited to agriculture. He provided a brief rundown on each potential option during agricultural labor talks in February sponsored by the Washington Growers League.

Visas are given to foreign students and exchange visitors for academic and vocational studies in the United States. However, those with student visas are not to work while here, with the exception of working on campus, unless there are emergency situations, Roach said. Those here for vocational training can work in the area of their study for one year. Exchange visitors can receive educational, on-the-job training. He explained that few foreign students are here studying to be apple pickers or crew foremen. Wineries have utilized the exchange program to bring in foreign winemakers and some small farmers have provided farm management training to foreign students, but it’s high-end training, he said, and won’t really help farmers looking to add numbers to their work force.

Roach is often asked by a grower to help obtain a green card or immigrant work permit for their foreman or “ace” guy. The U.S. government uses employment-based ­preference categories and a quota for each country to determine the number of immigrant visas approved each year. Eighty-six percent of the visas granted annually go to priority workers (geniuses, outstanding professors and researchers, multinational executives); workers holding advanced degrees; and skilled workers (jobs that require at least two years of education and training, or jobs that require baccalaureate degrees and are not temporary or seasonal). Seven percent of the visas are granted for religious workers and seven percent to other workers that require less than two years of experience and training. Roach said the “other worker” category currently has a six-year waiting list for workers from Mexico—and that’s if you can get through the three- to ten-year permanent bar process designed to punish workers who have been in the United States illegally.

Prisoner, refugee programs

Some states, such as Washington, have prisoner work programs that allow low-security-risk prisoners to work while serving their sentence. “This could be a potential option, depending on where growers are located, if they have housing, and are prepared to pay higher than normal wages,” Roach said. Last fall, McDougall and Sons, a grower-packer in Wenatchee, Washington, hired more than 100 prisoners for six days at $22 per hour to harvest high-value apples after their H-2A workers returned home. In Washington, prisoners have for years done reforestation work, parks repair in downtown Seattle, and similar jobs, all without major incident or escape. The prisoners are well screened, and no sex offenders are allowed. “There are potentially about 400 prisoners that could be available in a given year in Washington State,” according to Roach. “It might be an option for employers located near state prisons in Olympia or Connell.”

The World Relief organization, with 23 offices in 11 states (California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Minnesota, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, and Maryland) helps thousands of refugees replant their lives in the United States. In Washington, according to Roach, about 400 adults annually have work permits that would allow them to work in agriculture. Refugees settling recently in Washington have come from Burma, Somalia, Iraq, Cuba, Russia, and Moldova. Some come from farming backgrounds, but most will likely need training and a facilitator for translating. “Refugees prefer full-time work and are highly motivated, though most are not used to agricultural work,” he said. Broetje Orchards in Prescott, Washington, is working to develop employment for Burmese refugees who have settled in the ­ Tri-Cities area.