Farm interns not eligible for minimum wage but receive formal training
By STEVE BROWN
OLYMPIA -- An expanded version of the farm intern pilot project that expired in 2011 has passed its first committee and is headed for the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, who spearheaded efforts to establish the initial program, sponsored Senate Bill 5123, which would revive the program and expand it to more counties.
The original program directed the Department of Labor and Industries to establish a pilot project in San Juan and Skagit counties allowing farmers to take on unpaid interns who would perform farm work, become involved in a structured educational program and receive workers' compensation coverage. Interns would not be eligible for minimum wage or unemployment insurance.
Six farms and nine interns participated in the original program.
"Both the farms and interns are reporting high levels of satisfaction with this project. Their desire is to continue providing internships that are sanctioned instead of questionably legal 'flying under the radar,'"an agency report said.
SB5123 adds King, Whatcom, Kitsap, Pierce, Jefferson, Spokane, Yakima, Chelan, Grant, Kittitas, Lincoln and Thurston counties to the list.
Addie Candib of the Washington Young Farmers Coalition said the intern program fills a critical need for agriculture.
"My generation is not growing up on farms," she told the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee. As one who has participated in internship programs, she said SB5123 provides a safe, legal and effective framework for training.
Susan Soltes of Bow Hill Blueberries said the internships meet the needs of farmers and interns. Interns are not paid minimum wage, but they are given housing, a stipend, garden plot, weekly family-style meals and a diverse learning experience.
When last year's Legislature did not renew the project, Soltes helped form the Skagit Intern Program in association with Washington State University's Cultivating Success program.
"We're trying to grow farmers," she said. "The interns are not employees, and they make a lot of mistakes. ... That's a risk we take in providing this education. How else will they learn properly?"
The farm's books are open to the interns, she said, "so they can learn what's sustainable and what's not. They work beside us but not for us."
According to the bill's fiscal note, expenditures from the state general fund would be $426,000 for the current biennium, $398,000 for 2015-17, and $100,000 for 2017-19.
Department of Labor and Industries: www.lni.wa.gov
Washington Young Farmers Coalition: washingtonyoungfarmers.org
Bow Hill Blueberries: bowhillblueberries.com
Cultivating Success: www.cultivatingsuccess.org