Tree fruit labor

Uriel Sanchez picks Rainier cherries in Handley Orchards, East Wenatchee, Wash., on June 26. Grower Andy Handley had enough domestic workers without hiring foreign guestworkers.

EAST WENATCHEE, Wash. — An unusual thing happened this year at Handley Orchards, in East Wenatchee, at the end of cherry harvest in mid-July.

“It was the first year in a long time that labor eased up at the end. There were guys looking for work,” which has been a rare occurrence in recent years, says owner Andy Handley.

He thinks it was caused by a week-long gap between the end of harvest in the lowlands along the Columbia River in the greater Wenatchee area and start of harvest in higher elevations above town. That was coupled with pickers moving up from Pasco and the Columbia Basin looking for work.

Handley’s experience underscores a lessening of Central Washington’s labor shortage in the last three years. The domestic labor supply slightly improved two years ago and last year was even better, partly because of a smaller apple crop.

Independent Warehouse in the Wenatchee Valley town of Dryden was even able to reduce its piece-rate pay for pear picking from $27 per bin plus a $2 bonus to stay the whole season to $25 per bin with no bonus.

But while Handley was flush with pickers at the end of this cherry season, it may have been just a local phenomenon.

Dan Fazio, director of the farm labor association Wafla, in Olympia, said labor still appears short with the exception of Wenatchee and Yakima.

In talking with one grower each in Wenatchee, Yakima, Okanogan, Quincy and Pasco, on July 31, Fazio said labor is short in Quincy, Royal City and farther south into the Columbia Basin.

“Growers are observing lower-margin orchards that have not been thinned, most likely due to lack of workers,” Fazio said. “Farm labor contractors are having a hard time attracting workers.”

Good workers demand at least $15.03 per hour, which is the minimum wage for H-2A-visa foreign guestworkers, but it’s “simply too much” for some growers to pay, he said.

On the flip side, higher wages may be attracting more workers, which is good, he said.

Labor is short in the Okanogan, but the $15.03 minimum growers have to pay domestics if they also hire foreign workers is attracting some non-farm workers, who usually quit after one or two days, Fazio said.

People not accustomed to farm work often find it harder than they anticipate.

Domestic workers appear plentiful in Wenatchee with reports of them looking for work. While maybe not plentiful in Yakima there’s no shortage, Fazio said.

In general, growers are getting more referrals of domestic workers from the state Employment Security Department, he said, adding its reducing some of the need for foreign workers.

An Okanogan grower thought he was going to get domestic workers and decided, at Wafla’s advice, to forgo bringing some H-2A workers up from Mexico, Fazio said.

“He was lucky because he got the domestics and would have had to send the H-2A workers home. It would have been costly,” he said.

Employers have to pay H-2A worker transportation from and back to the country of origin and provide housing.

The grower got some H-2A workers but was allowed by the U.S. Department of Labor to not bring in all the H-2A workers he asked for on the same date, saving some for later, Fazio said.

That’s a change reflective of proposed rule changes by the Trump administration, he said.

Rob Valicoff, president of Valicoff Fruit Co. in Wapato, said he will have enough workers for apple harvest with about 220 H-2A workers and 10 to 15 domestics. H-2A workers got him through cherry harvest, he said.

“There were some shortfalls of labor in cherry harvest here in the Lower Yakima Valley, but nothing major,” he said. “Some growers had to reach out to labor contractors and got the job done.”

A larger apple crop, to be harvested mid-August to early November, could prove challenging. The key is to have enough workers to get apples picked on time, Valicoff said.

Industry use of H-2A workers may go up 5,000 to 6,000, he said.

Last year, Washington growers hired 24,862 H-2A workers, up 34% from 2017. That in turn was up 35% from 2016.

Walfa supplied 13,848 H-2A workers last year.

Central Washington field reporter

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