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Labor shortage estimate alarms Washington officials

Dan Wheat
Tree fruit growers, the Washington Farm Labor Association and the state Department of Agriculture are concerned about an April jump in a monthly estimate in a shortage of seasonal labor.

A big uptick in the estimated shortage of seasonal farmworkers in Washington in April is worrying some members of the agricultural industry.

Agricultural employers were 14.3 percent short of workers they needed in April. That’s up from 5.2 percent short in March and higher than the previous peaks of 8.8 percent in June 2013 and September 2012, according to the Washington Employment Security Department.

It’s the largest shortage the monthly surveys have shown since they started seven years ago.

The number caused the Washington Farm Labor Association to convene an informal meeting of tree fruit growers, industry advocates and Bud Hover, director of the state Department of Agriculture, in Pateros on May 30.

Okanogan County, where Pateros is, typically feels labor shortages first because its geographic isolation makes it difficult to attract workers, said Dan Fazio, WAFLA director.

“The shortage figure is very concerning given industry projections of a record-setting apple crop and the risk that there will not be sufficient workers to harvest it,” Fazio said in a news release.

“Access to a stable workforce is a problem for growers,” Hover said.

Other state and federal agencies lead labor programs but WSDA can help growers navigate programs and facilitate conversations to lead to solutions, he said.

Every month, the department surveys 2,000 of 6,000 agricultural employers in the state, asking if some work didn’t get done because of lack of seasonal workers and how many more workers they could have used. The questionnaire goes to 250 large employers, mostly the same ones every year, and a random selection of 1,750 smaller ones that varies more year-to-year. There were 738 responses in the April survey.

The shortage was estimated at 5.2 percent in March, up from no shortage a year earlier, and 5.9 percent in February, up from 2.4 percent the year before, Fazio told Capital Press.

“We’re getting phone calls, talking to growers and seeing these statistics. Basically, we’re going to have a 10 percent shortage, which means if we don’t have good weather for harvest through November, we’re going to have apples on the ground (left unpicked) and that’s with over 8,000 guestworkers,” Fazio said.

“It’s not a good sign,” said Mike Gempler, executive director of Washington Growers League in Yakima.

April is early enough that it may not truly reflect what will happen, but “it’s an indicator of potentially larger shortages than in the past,” he said.

“We are very concerned with larger crops coming on and the labor force continuing to deteriorate,” Gempler said. “It means doing everything we can to utilize the domestic workforce.”

Expanded use of the temporary foreign workers, through H-2A visas, will continue, but growers need to consider housing and child care to entice domestic workers, he said.

WAFLA assists growers with most Washington H-2A applications to the U.S. Department of Labor. The association estimates more than 8,000 foreign guestworkers will be working in Washington in 2014 compared with 6,221 certified last year. More than a quarter of this year’s H-2A workers will be in Okanogan County, Fazio said.

It normally takes 75 days from application to getting H-2A workers, Fazio said. That can be cut to 50 days for first-time, emergency applicants, he said.

“Yes, we are running out of time,” he said. “If applications aren’t ready to go by July 1, you can forget about getting workers for Sept. 1.”

Tree fruit companies and cooperatives can apply for more H-2A workers to help small growers, he said.



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