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All commercial farmers and ranchers in Washington State who grow crops sometimes harvested by H-2A workers should have received a survey from the Department of Employment Security, asking how much they pay domestic workers to do specific jobs.

Results of the survey are used to establish the prevailing wage rates that employers who hire workers through the federal H-2A foreign guest worker program may have to pay. The prevailing wages are established on a regional basis by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Employers must pay H-2A workers (and domestic workers doing the same jobs) whichever is higher of the prevailing wage rate, the adverse effect wage rate (AEWR), or the state or federal minimum wage.

The AEWR is an hourly wage based on a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey of nonsupervisory agricultural workers and will be $12.42 in Washington and Oregon in 2015. In Washington State, the prevailing wage rate is usually the highest.

In the survey, which was due to be mailed out in December, farmers are asked to state the wage rates they pay domestic workers for specified activities. The activities are based on jobs that Washington employers have listed in their H-2A job orders. They are also asked about common and prevailing practices relating to those jobs, such as minimum production standards and experience requirements.

Prevailing wage

Adrian Sinkler, economic analyst with Employment Security in Olympia, Washington, explained during an H-2A stakeholder meeting in Wenatchee last fall how the prevailing wage is determined. If 40 percent of all workers doing a job receive the same rate, that’s the prevailing wage, but it rarely happens, Sinkler said. Alternatively, the median of the reported pay rates is used.

Sinkler said it’s important that employers fill out the survey, which Washington State University sent out by mail and email. Recipients can complete the survey online if they wish. A web link and login information were sent with the survey.

“We really encourage you to return the survey to us because the more of you that do, the more reliable our findings are,” Sinkler said. “It’s like exercising your right to vote. In responding to this survey, what you’re doing is influencing the prevailing wages and practices in the state.”

The reason for establishing a prevailing wage rate is to ensure that H-2A workers are paid the same rate as domestic workers so that hiring of foreign guest workers does not adversely affect the wages of locally recruited people.

Employment security will calculate the prevailing wages from the responses, but the Department of Labor’s Office for Foreign Labor Certification ultimately determines what they will be.

Honest

Mike Robinson, an orchardist at Quincy, Washington, who attended the meeting, urged growers to answer the survey honestly and not inflate the amount they’re actually paying.

“They need to be honest, and we need to get the word out how important this survey is,” he said. “It doesn’t just impact people using the H-2A program. It affects everybody because it drives the wage scale.”

Robinson hires more than half his harvest workers through the H-2A program. In the Columbia Basin area there are enough large growers using the H-2A program that the prevailing wage they are paying is influencing the wage scale, he said.

Another grower at the meeting suggested that the survey should ask what employers would pay their workers if they had the flexibility to decide. Employers have to pay domestic workers the same as their H-2A workers if they’re doing the equivalent job.

“We give you information on the prices we’re already locked into,” he said. “It’s not providing real-world numbers. Asking what we would pay if we were not in H-2A would help bring back some real numbers into the process.”

For some tasks, such as apple thinning, the prevailing wage is an hourly rate. But for others, such as apple picking, it’s a piece-rate. The picking rate differs according to the apple variety, tree density, and whether the orchard is trellised or not.

For eastern Washington, it ranges from $16 a bin for strip picking of Red Delicious in a medium-density trellised orchard to $30 a bin for strip picking of Fujis in a low-density non-trellised orchard. •

To view the current prevailing wage rates for Washington, go to www.foreignlaborcert.doleta.gov/aowl.cfm and select Washington from the Crop and Livestock Survey Reports dropdown menu.