This spring, the Social Security Administration reinstituted its annual reality check for employers, “SSN No-Match letters,” after a three-year hiatus.

I immediately received a call from a leader in the tree fruit community, and the conversation went something like this: “Dan, I have an excellent personal relationship with Doc Hastings, I will be in Washington, D.C., next week to visit him, and I need you to write something up for my visit so we can take care of these damn No-Match letters.”

What did he want me to write—“Please stop sending letters to remind us of the fact that the majority of our seasonal work force doesn’t have the right to be here?”

I work behind a desk in Olympia, I travel to eastern Washington a couple of times each month, and what I see is new cherry orchards, new grape vineyards, and new apple orchards. I wonder, “Where are the workers going to come from? Where is the plan?”

If you didn’t like No-Match letters, you will hate mandatory E-Verify.

Reality Check 101

When it comes to the work force, the industry needs a reality check. Here goes: There will be an immigration reform law. It will mandate that employers—even agricultural employers—use E-Verify to check the work ­eligibility of their employees. It will provide status adjustment to undocumented workers, and many will transition out of agriculture. Americans will not be attracted in sufficient numbers to seasonal agricultural work. The industry will still need seasonal workers, and therefore employers will need to obtain at least a portion of the work force from a guest-worker program.

This spring, President Obama unveiled immigration reform guidelines that are not particularly helpful. The plan will provide status adjustment, but it will not provide a useable guest-worker program. Immigration reform will be a big issue in the 2012 presidential ­election, but employers will not be driving the issue. Agricultural and high-tech employers will be more engaged than the rest of the business community, but the primary force will be from left wing and right wing fringes that have passionate opinions on the issue.

Ultimately, I don’t think that immigration reform will occur prior to 2013, and that might be good news for seasonal employers. It will give us more time to get our act together. And if agricultural employers can speak intelligently about what we will need in a guest-worker program, politicians from the two major parties will have a better chance to help us.

Of the 20 or so applications that are filed each year in Washington State through the H-2A program, the Washington Farm Labor Association writes 15 of them. We have built a relationship with the regulators, and we view them as allies, not adversaries. We even have a ­relationship with one of two legal services providers.

Now it’s time to take the next step: Construct a ­program that is simpler and more affordable, enabling more employers to try it out.

We have a plan. Our plan involves transferring workers among different employers in the course of a seven-month season. This will dramatically decrease the fixed cost of the program, since the major cost is transportation and costs incurred at the border. Employers can choose one or more of early season, midseason, or late harvest time frames. Employers who are willing to take workers for a period when there is less demand could try the program essentially for free. And since each employer is only using the program for a short period, there are fewer technical problems.

We will be conducting regional meetings in August to lay out the details of the plan, discuss the seasonal work force, and accept indications of interest from employers for the time frame that they would like to reserve. Our goal next year is to have 500 workers available to rotate among ten different employers or more.

Employers who try the program now will have an advantage over those who don’t use it until they are forced. Employers have a choice: They can take control of this issue, or continue to stick their collective heads in the sand and hope that the work force issue will solve itself. I am betting that many will chose the former.

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