By DAN WHEAT
WENATCHEE, Wash. -- Overall Washington agricultural employment is trending upward, but it isn't keeping up with the labor demands of larger tree fruit and wine grape crops, a tree fruit industry leader says.
Labor shortages likely will continue at various levels in the near term due to huge crops and weather that can compress harvest windows, said Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association, a tree fruit trade and marketing association in Wenatchee.
"The probability of labor shortages over the course of harvest will continue until immigration reform occurs and the industry adopts more harvest mechanization," Mayer said.
A February ag employment and wage report issued March 21 by the state Department of Employment Security shows overall agricultural employment up 7.8 percent in February compared with February a year ago. Seasonal ag employment was down 6.5 percent and down 11.5 percent from two years ago.
A huge apple crop requiring more personnel in packing houses contributed to the overall increase, Mayer said.
The drop in seasonal demand, specifically in apple and cherry work, reflects a mild winter in which pruning was spread out over more days requiring fewer workers at any given time, he said.
"We were able to get more pruning done in November and December and growers try to do that to be ahead of the Jan. 1 minimum-wage increase," Mayer said.
The monthly report was based on 433 responses to a survey sent to 2,000 agricultural operators.
The state's total agricultural jobs was estimated at 66,970 compared with 62,130 in February 2012. South Central Washington had the largest increase of 1,830 jobs. Western Washington had the biggest drop, down 290.
Looking at just seasonal agricultural work, the estimate is 18,320 jobs compared with 19,600 in February 2012.
The report estimates numbers of jobs, not workers, and is not adjusted for workers holding multiple jobs.
"Generally, speaking the annual trend over the last few years has been an increase in total and seasonal employment," said John Wines, the department's economic analyst who prepared the report.
The report estimates decreases in seasonal jobs from February to February of: 1,450 in apples (mainly pruning); 620 in cherries; 420 for raspberries, 270 in onions, 120 in blueberries and 20 in wheat and grains.
Estimated increases: 1,680 in hops; 1,430 grapes; 600 potatoes; 300 nursery; 210 vegetables; 140 pears; 50 other tree fruit; 30 bulb work.
Tree fruit, grapes and hops are leading labor-intensive crops.
Statewide, inflation-adjusted ag seasonal employee wage rates increased, on average, 5.2 percent from February 2011 to February 2013 while the inflation-adjusted state minimum wage increased 3.5 percent in the same period, the report states.