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State survey shows agricultural labor shortage

Dan Wheat
Washington is short farmworkers but the situation is about the same as in recent years, the latest monthly state survey shows. The shortage would be worse without a big increase in foreign guest workers, an industry leader says.

Washington was 7 percent short of the agricultural labor it needed in August, according a monthly survey by the state Department of Employment Security.

Similar surveys estimated a 6 percent shortage in July, 8.8 percent in June, 5.7 percent in May and 7.5 percent in August of 2012.

Most of it is in tree fruit because that sector is the largest user of seasonal workers, said John Wines, a department economic analyst who authored the report.

The numbers are not alarming, reflecting the summer norm of the last two years, he said.

The estimates are based on agricultural operators’ responses to questions of whether they failed to complete some work due to lack of available seasonal labor and how many more employees they could have used.

The August number came from a return of 622 surveys out of 2,000 sent to agricultural operators. The response ratio was similar in preceding months.

“This continues to demonstrate that tree fruit growers are having a difficult time meeting their labor demands,” said Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee.

More people are working in tree fruit but it’s not enough to meet demand of increased production, Mayer said.

The August shortage would have been greater, he said, had it not been for a 36.8 percent increase in H-2A visa foreign guest workers over 2012 and some growers delaying picking because of slow apple coloring.

Apple harvest accounted for 48.2 percent of the annual average seasonal ag employment in 2012, Wines said. October was the apple peak at 55,653 workers but July is always the total seasonal ag peak because of cherry harvest and apple thinning, he said. It was 61,373 in July 2012.

According to Wines’ latest monthly report, total statewide agricultural employment increased 11.7 percent from August 2012 to August 2013 while seasonal agricultural employment decreased 3.4 percent during the same period. Total agricultural employment decreased 17.7 percent from July to August of 2013.

The report showed an August-to-August decrease in cherries of 7,650 workers. The August cherry crop was significantly less this year over last, Mayer said.

The number of workers was down 1,990 in miscellaneous vegetables, 1,120 in apples, 840 in onions, 740 in pears, 680 in other seasonal, 290 in wheat and grain and 70 in cucumbers.

But conversely there were August-to-August gains of 780 more workers in grapes, 580 in hops, 520 in raspberries, 300 in other tree fruit, 260 in potatoes, 170 in nursery and 70 in blueberries.

The average inflation-adjusted seasonal wage rate was up 7.9 percent from two years earlier. The inflation-adjusted state minimum wage rose 3.5 percent during the same three years.

The state’s seasonal agricultural employment was estimated at 62,710 in August, down from 64,910 in August 2012, according to the report. Total agricultural employment was estimated at 124,620 versus 111,560 a year earlier.



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