By DAN WHEAT
The minimum wage for H-2A foreign guestworkers in Washington and Oregon has jumped 10 percent, making it harder for tree fruit growers to use the program, says Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association.
Usually, the U.S. Department of Labor adjusts the minimum, known as the adverse effect wage rate (AEWR), each April, but this year raised it Jan. 8 from $10.92 to $12 per hour, Fazio said. That's 30 percent higher than Washington's new minimum wage of $9.16 an hour, which is the highest state minimum wage in the nation, he said. Oregon's is $8.95.
A 15-cent increase in the AEWR would have been more normal, not $1.08, he said.
"It's pure and simple the government trying to make H-2A unworkable to put pressure to legalize undocumented workers," Fazio said, adding that both foreign guestworkers and legal status for undocumented workers are needed to do hard work in agriculture that no one else wants to do.
"When Obama came into office, his administration changed the AEWR from a prevailing wage standard to one that would punish employers who are seeking a legal and stable workforce and this is the result," Fazio said.
Without 4,500 H-2A workers in Washington last year the industry would have been hard-pressed to harvest a record apple crop, he said.
The AEWR is supposed to be for a particular agricultural job and area so that wages of similarly employed U.S. workers will not be adversely affected, Fazio said.
"A main complaint of agricultural employers is that the wage covers all jobs in a particular state or region and not the position that is applied for," he said.
The state departments of Employment Security and Agriculture are not interested in petitioning the U.S. Department of Labor to reduce the rate, he said.
Growers can tailor their H-2A contracts for just harvest work and use non-H-2A workers for pruning and thinning to pay less, he said.
But Scott McDougall, co-president of McDougall & Sons Inc., Wenatchee, said he also needs H-2A workers to get the company's pruning and thinning done.
Growers typically pay minimum wage for pruning and thinning but pay piece rates for harvest that are higher than the state minimum wage or the AEWR, depending on the speed of the picker.
McDougall, who hired state prisoners to finish harvest in 2011, said he's not happy about the boost in the AEWR but will hire about 500 H-2A workers this year, compared to 400 last year, because without them he can't get his work done. He will raise the minimum pay of his 60 regular, non-H-2A workers to $12 per hour to stay competitive, he said.
"This is supposed to lead to more local people, but I'm not anticipating it. It's just the kind of work it is. People don't want to work that hard," he said.
He is adding six more 12-bed housing units to meet H-2A housing requirements.
Usually, he receives his first H-2A workers in early June for thinning but has stepped it up to mid-February this year because he needs them for pruning, he said.