OLYMPIA, Wash. — Rapid growth of H-2A visa foreign guestworkers will continue in Washington state and may pick up in Oregon and California, the Washington Farm Labor Association director says.
More tree fruit growers in Central Washington turned to H-2A workers for pruning, thinning and harvest in 2013 and that trend will continue as long as there’s no reform of federal immigration policy, said Dan Fazio, director of the WAFLA.
Even if immigration policy is reformed next year to grant legal status to millions of workers currently in the U.S. illegally and replace the H-2A program, it will take a year or more to implement any changes, he said.
The U.S. Department of Labor approved 6,221 H-2A guestworkers for Washington in 2013 and 6,090 of those were in tree fruit, according to Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee. Totals were 4,546 in 2012 and 3,182 in 2011.
“I don’t think it will slow down until we hit 10,000,” Fazio said.
The increase has been partly fueled by Fazio finding ways to pool H-2A employees for growers to spread the costs of transportation and housing. He said he’s looking into ways to share workers from state to state, bringing H-2A workers into California and Oregon and moving them to Washington as needed.
“We’re trying to make the program usable for the small and middle-size guy and we’ve started to see that more this year,” he said.
WAFLA benefits from increases in H-2A workers. It assisted 80 percent of all grower H-2A applications in Washington this year. Fazio won’t say how much the association charges. He said it costs more than $1,000 per worker for transportation from and back to Mexico and consulate and border fees. WAFLA assists as a grower’s agent, or as the applicant and joint employer.
Kirk Mayer, manager of the Clearing House Association, agreed H-2A use will continue to increase. Tree fruit growers also will turn more to mechanization to meet labor shortages, he said.
“I think we will continue to see a rise of H-2A. It’s hard to say how much but I’ve talked to a number of growers looking at it more seriously,” Mayer said. “It’s very expensive and there’s a lot of regulatory red tape to understand or you can end up in court. You need a consultant to assist you.”
Beside WAFLA, the Washington Growers League in Yakima provides similar services, he said.
Washington has moved into fourth place in the number of H-2A workers behind North Carolina, Georgia and Florida, according to a new WAFLA H-2A report.
Cost-sharing contracts allow employers to share H-2A workers. They can pick different crops — like asparagus, cherries, stone fruit and apples — all for different employers, the report said.
An example cited in the report was Stemilt AgServices hiring H-2A workers for cherry harvest and apple thinning from early June through mid-July. Sarbanand Farms employing the same workers for blueberry harvest from July 15 through early September and Stemilt using them again to pick apples.
Stemilt and Sarbanand shared border crossing and transportation costs.
Employers have workers when they need them, saving them money, Fazio said. Workers like it because they make more money with less down time, he said.