BOISE — A bill that would allow all sectors of Idaho agriculture to use state inmate labor when they can’t find enough workers has been sent to the full Senate with a “do-pass” recommendation.
Members of the Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee voted unanimously Jan. 19 in favor of Senate Bill 1208.
The bill strikes two words — “perishable” and “food” — from a law passed in 2014 that allows agricultural businesses to use inmate labor in emergency situations. That will pave the way for other farm sectors, such as nurseries and tree farms, to use inmate labor.
The simple change “allows inmates in our (correctional centers) to be able to work in all forms of agriculture,” said Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, who crafted the bill and authored legislation passed in 2014 that created the program.
During a public hearing Jan. 19, committee members heard testimony from an ag producer that has benefited from the program, one that wants to, and two inmates who participate in it.
Symms Fruit Ranch is using the federal H-2A guestworker program but still is short of workers during critical times of the year, such as harvest, said Charles Robinson, the farm manager.
“We cannot get (adequate) labor any longer,” he said. He said the business is currently short about 50 people for its pruning crew and “we can use these inmates … year-round.”
Symms has offered one inmate full-time employment when he leaves prison and has provided letters of recommendation for several inmates who have found employment after their release, Robinson said.
Clayton Tree Farm Owner Bill Clayton said he hopes to use inmate labor if the bill is approved by legislators and signed into law. He said he will use the H-2A program this spring for the first time but continues to struggle to find enough workers.
At one time, if the farm needed 10 workers, 75 people would show up looking for work, he said. “That’s taken a dramatic turn,” he said. “We’ve struggled the last few years getting enough labor.”
Idaho Department of Corrections Director Henry Atencio told lawmakers that employers who use the program have to demonstrate they can’t find employees in the community.
He said the program isn’t subsidizing employers because they must cover the costs associated with the program and a big focus of the department is making sure workers are receiving a fair wage. Idaho Department of Labor experts help develop the pay rates for these employees, he said.
“It’s hard work and they should be receiving a fair wage,” Atencio said.
Committee members had mostly positive comments about the program, for its assistance to ag businesses under the gun to find workers as well as for its help in rehabilitating inmates.
“Agriculture is the heart of our economy in Idaho,” said Sen. Abby Lee, R-Fruitland. She added that “it would be hard to argue we are displacing jobs. That’s not the case.”