Survey shows labor shortage increasing
By DAN WHEAT
WENATCHEE, Wash. -- Washington growers had 8.8 percent fewer workers than needed in June compared with 5.7 percent in May and 7.2 percent in June a year ago, a state labor analyst says.
The 8.8 percent estimate is based on 641 responses to surveys sent to 2,000 growers by the state Department of Employment Security. Growers are asked if they failed to complete some work due to lack of available seasonal labor and how many more employees they could have used.
The survey has mostly shown shortages since July 2011 while showing no shortage for the prior 16 months, said John Wines, analyst preparing the department's monthly Agriculture Labor Employment and Wages report.
The number likely will flatten or decline with the cherry crop estimated to drop 22 percent from an original forecast, but the overall trend for the last two years has been upward, he said.
Meanwhile, the same department's WorkSource offices had 2,629 agricultural job openings listed in May and June compared with 3,884 in the same period a year ago, said Craig Carroll, administrator of the Okanogan WorkSource office in Omak. But that may have been offset by an increase in H-2A foreign guest workers, he said.
Agricultural employers have to advertise H-2A positions for domestic hires and H-2A job openings reached 6,261 this year compared with 4,882 last year, Carroll said.
Thinning of the apple crop seemed to go faster this year partly because a light and rain-damaged cherry crop left more workers available to thin apples, he said. None of a half dozen or so Central Washington tree fruit growers Capital Press has asked in the last month have indicated any shortage of workers. Some said they turned pickers away.
Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee, said there seemed to have been more shortage early in the cherry season in South Central Washington. He said spot shortages occur on and off called the 8.8 percent estimate significant.
Wines said the monthly estimate peaked at 8.8 percent in September during apple harvest a year ago.
Mayer said he has not had very many calls from growers concerned about labor. "At this stage with reduced crops and success of H-2A, we're not seeing significant shortages that we've seen in the past but spot ones here and there," he said.