Washington was 3.6 percent short of the agricultural labor it needed in October, according a monthly survey by the state Department of Employment Security.
That rate is normal and indicates a minimal labor shortage mainly in seasonal tree fruit work, said John Wines, a department economic analyst who authored the report. He said the percentage is usually zero in December and January and highest in the summer. This year’s peak was 8.8 percent in June, the height of the cherry harvest.
The report corresponds with what tree fruit companies have said. They were tight and short of labor in September but less so in October.
“It fits well with what I heard from tree fruit growers as the season progressed, that shortages were not as severe in October and we had outstanding fall weather that helped for an orderly harvest,” said Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee.
The shortage would have been worse this year had it not been for a significant uptick in the number of foreigners hired on H-2A guestworker visas, Mayer and Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association, have said.
The U.S. Department of Labor approved 6,221 H-2A guest workers for Washington this year, up from 4,546 in 2012 and 3,182 in 2011, Mayer said. All but a few were in tree fruit, he said.
Labor was largely adequate because of the H-2A workers, who are paid hourly, and an increase in piece-rate wages for other pickers, Wines has said.
Pear growers were short pickers in the upper Wenatchee Valley, as were some growers in the Okanogan.
Bill Wacker, a Wenatchee grower, said he had no trouble finding workers to harvest his Red Delicious and Cripps Pink apples this season but ended up paying $28 per bin to keep his pickers for the late Cripps Pink. He started them at $26 but they threatened to quit if he didn’t pay more, he said. He finished harvest Nov. 14. He paid $17 per bin for harvest of his Reds earlier.
The monthly labor shortage 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.
Statewide seasonal agricultural employment increased 2.1 percent over the three years from October 2011 through October 2013, according to Employment Security’s October report.
More people are working in tree fruit but it’s not enough to meet the demand created by increased acreage production, Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee, has said.
Total statewide agricultural employment increased an estimated 14.1 percent from October 2012 to October 2013 while dropping 4.9 percent from September to October 2013, according to the report.
Statewide seasonal ag employment dropped 6.4 percent over the year from October 2012 to October 2013. That’s due to a smaller apple crop than a year ago, Wines has said. It’s also indicative of almost no labor shortage in October, he said.
The report showed an October-to-October decrease of 4,670 workers in apples, 800 in miscellaneous vegetables, 630 in pears, 510 in blueberries, 350 in grapes, 180 in grains, 110 in raspberries and 80 in potatoes.
It showed an October-to-October increase of 810 workers in onions, 750 in other seasonal, 720 in hops, 310 in nursery and 220 in other tree fruit.
The state’s seasonal agricultural employment was estimated at 67,890 for October, down 6.4 percent from 72,550 in October 2012. Total agricultural employment was estimated at 121,750 up 14.1 percent from 106,670 a year earlier.