OROVILLE, Wash. — As the minimum wage for H-2A-visa foreign agricultural workers goes up another 74 cents per hour in Washington and Oregon, a small tree fruit grower in this U.S.-Canadian border town says it’s just one more thing jeopardizing his survival.
“I’m filling out my H-2A application for next year right now as we speak. It has me nervous. I don’t know when it ends. It’s a minimum so I have to reward workers with experience and better skills by paying them more than that,” says Dave Taber, owner-operator of about 275 acres of apples, pears and cherries.
The H-2A minimum wage in 2018 for Washington and Oregon is $14.12 per hour, up 5.53 percent from $13.38 this year. The two states fall from highest to second highest in the nation. Hawaii is the new No. 1 at $14.37 per hour.
Taber hired 30 H-2A workers last year and this year plans to have 45. For the first time, he’s hiring some for winter pruning and spring planting.
“It’s just making our cost of labor go up and it’s that much more difficult to get returns to cover that. You’d better have the right varieties, quality, yields and warehouses to stay in business and I’m not sure if I do or not,” Taber said.
The U.S. Department of Labor, Dec. 21, released the Adverse Effect Wage Rates (AEWRs) for all regions of the country for 2018. They are the same as what USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service released in November based on a survey of prevailing wages of field and livestock workers by region across the nation.
They are minimum hourly rates for H-2A-visa workers, usually above state minimum wages, and intended to be high enough that pay of domestic workers are not adversely affected.
An employer who hires H-2A workers is required to pay a minimum of the AEWR to any domestic workers also under his or her employ.
AEWR increases push all wages up increasing costs, growers say.
California goes up 4.85 percent from $12.57 to $13.38.
Idaho and Wyoming wages go down 3 cents from $11.66 to $11.63. Nevada and Colorado go down 2.82 percent from $11 to $10.69 and Arizona is down 4.47 percent from $10.95 to $10.46.
Washington tree fruit growers pay piece rates for harvest that generally run the equivalent of $20 per hour and more for fast pickers. Some say the AEWR is driven up by growers having to pay more for domestic workers because of labor shortages. They say upward wage pressure is a vicious cycle hurting growers. Beyond labor costs are increasing for housing, fuel, chemicals and equipment.
Dan Fazio is executive director of the farm labor association WAFLA, in Olympia, that helps growers large and small hire thousands of H-2A workers. He said expense is a major grower complaint about H-2A. Some vegetable farmers have quit using it because they can’t afford it, he said.
Beside the high minimum wage, employers have to provide worker housing and pay transportation for the workers from and back to their country of origin, predominately Mexico.
Labor shortages are driving up wages but not creating more workers, he said.
“Now that H-2A is a significant component of the workforce in Washington it is causing wages to increase across the board. It helps employers attract more domestics,” he said. “The pressure right now is on employers to get very productive workers.”
DOL approved 200,049 H-2A workers for U.S. farms in 2017, up 20.7 percent from 2016 and about 10 percent of the nation’s more than 2 million seasonal ag workers, according the National Council of Agricultural Employers in Washington, D.C.
DOL approved 18,535 H-2A workers for Washington state in 2017, up 9.3 percent. California was at 15,232, up 7.6 percent. Oregon and Idaho were not available but are far smaller.