WENATCHEE, Wash. — The H-2A-visa foreign guestworker program accounted for 20 percent of the peak seasonal farm workforce in Washington last year and is still growing, the director of the WAFLA farm labor association says.
A total of 18,535 H-2A visas were approved for the state in 2017, up 35 percent from 13,689 the year before, Dan Fazio, WAFLA director said at the association’s annual H-2A Workforce Summit on Jan. 17.
Of that amount, WAFLA hired 7,134, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That was direct hiring for employers, like a labor contractor. WAFLA also helped less directly with approximately 5,000 more for employers.
“The program is great except for the cost and the cost is mandating you have productive workers,” Fazio told about 200 growers. Costs vary, but typically run about $1,300 per worker per year for hiring and transportation, excluding wages, he has said in the past.
The main driver of the cost is wages, with the Adverse Effect Wage Rate established by the U.S. Department of Labor, he said. That’s the minimum wage for H-2A workers and has gone up an average of 4.5 percent a year for the past four years while most U.S. wages have gone up just 2 percent, he said.
Often H-2A workers are paid piece rate for harvest and make more than the AEWR, which is $14.12 this year in Washington and Oregon.
If 20,000 H-2A workers come to the state in 2018 and earn $30,000 apiece, that’s $600 million, Fazio said.
Employers save $1,854 in payroll taxes on an H-2A worker staying six months — assuming 3 percent unemployment insurance, 45 hours per week and $15 per hour — which helps offset costs, he said.
Roxana Macias, compliance director of CSI Visa Processing, hired by WAFLA to recruit workers in Mexico, said workers are eager to sign up because the best workers earn $25 a day in Mexico but can earn that in two hours in the U.S.
“We’re concentrating on worker quality, getting productive workers,” Fazio said, adding it would help if the program allowed workers to return home for one week every three months. Workers miss their homes and their productivity tends to decline the longer they stay, he said. The program limits workers to 10 months.