Farm advocates say increase in labor costs will destroy U.S. ag industry

By COOKSON BEECHER

Capital Press

Ag employers are ready to fight a federal proposal that would raise wages for temporary guestworkers under the H-2A program.

"We're not surprised at this, but we are disappointed," said Paul Schlagel, director of public policy at the American Farm Bureau, referring to the Department of Labor's proposed rule changes.

Under the H-2A program, employers can bring in temporary foreign workers for seasonal agricultural jobs if there are not enough workers locally. Employers are required to follow certain regulations.

Dan Fazio, labor specialist with the Washington State Farm Bureau, warns that "the writing will be on the wall for agriculture" if the proposed changes are adopted.

"In five or 10 years, we'll lose labor-intensive agriculture to offshore competitors if we have to pay more for labor," he said.

Under the department's proposal, H-2A wage calculations would revert to the methods the USDA used from 1989 until the Bush Administration's 2008 final rule.

Unlike the previous rule, the Bush rule included four wage levels that reflected different skill levels and different regions. That way, H-2A wages were generally lower than what they would be under each state's original "adverse effect wage rate," or AEWR, but higher than a state's minimum wage.

In 2008, the department's posted AEWR was $9.72 in California, $8.74 in Idaho and $9.94 in Oregon and Washington.

Fazio said that under the Bush rule an experienced H-2A fruit picker in Washington state earned about $10 per hour, while an inexperienced field worker earned from $8.60 to $8.90 per hour.

Fazio said that if the proposal becomes law, ag employers would generally have to pay $3.50 per hour more per worker to use the program than hiring a local worker. In Washington state and Oregon, it would cost them in excess of $5 per worker more.

In its proposed rule changes, the department says that on average, required wages under the program have declined by approximately $1.44 per hour since the Bush administration's final rule went into effect last year.

According to the department's proposal, the department has a statutory responsibility to protect U.S. workers whose lack of skills make them particularly vulnerable to the "wage deflation" that can result from hiring foreign workers.

In addition, using an adverse effect wage rate has the potential to give U.S. workers better employment opportunities, which is another one of the department's responsibilities.

Out in the labor-intensive orchards of Eastern Washington, Rob Valicoff Jr. said the proposed rule could have a devastating effect on his industry -- even beyond wages. He said he uses the H-2A program because the foreign seasonal workers he hires through the program are obligated to work for him the full length of the contract.

Local workers are free to jump ship and go where wages are higher as the picking season progresses.

"It's hard to keep a crew," Valicoff said. "Workers are migrating through -- floating around like clouds."

Crops are perishable and need to be picked when they're ready to be picked, he said. Delays can mean the loss of a crop.

Erik Nicholson, Northwest spokesman for the United Farm Workers, said the organization believes that returning to USDA's "tried-and-true methodology" for determining wages is the way to go.

"This will basically reverse all of the negative changes that Bush proposed three days before he left office," Nicholson said.

Staff writer Cookson Beecher is based in Sedro-Woolley, Wash. E-mail: cbeecher@capitalpress.com.

Online

To read the proposed rule changes: http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2009/E9-21017.htm

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