The Washington Employment Security Department will start asking farmers Monday how much they paid workers this year, an annual survey meant to standardize piece-rates for foreign seasonal workers, but which got little participation last year.
The voluntary survey’s low response rate shouldn’t be surprising, said Dan Fazio, executive director of WAFLA, the state’s largest supplier of foreign farmworkers. The survey fails to capture the nuances of farm work and inflates piece-rates for tasks such as picking apples, he said.
“We can’t abide by a survey that will not produce accurate results,” Fazio said.
The employment department plans to start surveying 2,130 employers beginning Monday. A survey of workers began Oct. 1. The wage survey has been a point of contention between the employment department and some farm groups, including WAFLA, formerly known as the Washington Farm Labor Association.
The participation in last year’s survey fell short of meeting the threshold set by the U.S. Department of Labor. The state employment department defended the results as statistically sound and has tried to get the federal agency to accept them. The department is continuing to talk with the Labor Department, the state’s director of employment policy, Daniel Zeitlin, said Friday in an email.
WAFLA celebrated the lack of results, saying growers could pay free-market rates for labor, rather than government-mandated piece-rates. Organizations such as Columbia Legal Services and the Washington State Labor Council complained that without mandated piece rates, foreign workers could be forced to accept the lower-paying $14.12 an hour guaranteed H-2A workers.
Columbia Legal attorney Joe Morrison said Friday that based on a few talks with H-2A workers, he has not heard evidence that the dispute over the wage survey has so far affected workers. “What I’ve heard is that people are paying piece rates,” he said. “My hope is that this was a lot of nothing, and that for the workers, the harvest went fine.”
Still, the concern remains that continually discarding the wage survey eventually will suppress worker pay, he said.
Fazio, who drew official ire for advising growers on how to fill out the survey in 2015, said two results from the 2017 survey jumped out. The average wage for picking red delicious apples jumped to $25 from $20 a bin and for picking gala apples to $25 from $20 a bin. Fazio said that piece-rates might reach or exceed that at some point in the season, but “we just can’t live with that as a starting wage.”
The Washington State Tree Fruit Association also has had concerns about the accuracy of the survey, the group’s president, Jon DeVaney, said in an email.
He said the employment department has agreed to clarify on this year’s survey the fact that piece-rates can vary among apple varieties depending on whether workers are clipping stems, or selectively picking based on color and ripeness rather than all the fruit, he said.
Improving how guest-worker wages are set would have to be done at the federal level, DeVaney said.