The Washington Farm Labor Association anticipates continued growth in its H-2A visa foreign guestworker program this year with a portion of that increase occurring in Oregon.
The state has lagged behind Washington in use of H-2A workers because state government hasn’t been as supportive of H-2A and growers haven’t developed as much worker housing, Dan Fazio, director of WAFLA said.
But Oregon growers are signing up because they are having a harder time finding domestic workers, Fazio said. Strawberries went unharvested last year for lack of labor, he said.
Oregon employed 200 to 300 H-2A workers in 2013 compared with 6,221 in Washington, but Oregon probably will reach 500 this year and exceed 1,000 in 2015, he said. Washington likely will be at 7,000 to 7,500 this year, he said.
The tree fruit industry in Central Washington is the main user in Washington, but it will be berry, vegetable and Christmas tree growers and nurseries in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, Fazio said. Grower housing is scarce because growers depend on workers to have their own housing in cities, he said.
Federal regulations require growers provide housing for H-2A workers. In Central Washington, larger growers install manufactured housing at or near orchards. But growers can pay for rental housing in cities as long as it meets federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards, Fazio said.
“We have growers who pulled strawberries last year because they couldn’t get them picked,” said Philip Gutt, administrator of the Oregon Strawberry Commission in Corvallis. Growers didn’t have enough workers and have been focused on immigration reform as a solution, Gutt said. With immigration reform now looking unlikely, growers are looking at H-2A, he said.
Fazio spoke to strawberry growers in Canby, Ore., on Feb. 19, to growers for Norpac Foods, Stayton, Ore., the day before, and to growers with the North Willamette Horticultural Society a month earlier. He said two fruit and vegetable growers have signed up and expects more.
Some Oregon sign-ups will work well in sequential contracts with Central Washington tree fruit growers, he said. Some Oregon need is short-term early in the season and the same workers can then go to Washington to pick apples and pears, he said.
The average cost for WAFLA to assist growers with H-2A applications to the U.S. Department of Labor, recruit workers in Mexico, transport them to job sites and manage contracts is $1,200 per worker. That goes up to $1,500 to $1,600 when three growers share a joint contract, but that cost is then split three ways, saving growers money, Fazio said.
Back-end growers harvesting apples and pears in Washington are willing, he said, to pay a portion of the front-end growers’ costs for the certainty of having workers when they need them, he said.
WAFLA also assists growers with H-2A visa applications only, but most growers prefer the full service of having WAFLA recruit and bring the workers to them.
Employers handle training, supervising and housing workers and must advertise for domestic workers to be given the same benefits as H-2A workers. Domestic workers can save growers 50 percent of the cost of H-2A workers because transportation is less and there’s no recruitment, visa and border costs, he said. Workers benefit because they get housing and certainty of employment and wages they otherwise wouldn’t get, he said.
WAFLA pioneered the use of sequential contracts last year and it contributed to increased H-2A usage in Washington.
WAFLA is offering to get workers for $400 per worker for workers needed between May 1 and July 15 to growers who act quickly. It takes two months or more to get workers from the time of application.