Washington farmworker

A foreign farmworker picks apples in Orondo, Wash. The Washington Employment Security Department couldn’t place any U.S. workers to fill requests for foreign farmworkers.

Washington state’s Employment Security Department found no U.S. workers to take the place of foreign farmworkers this year, despite a concerted effort to make sure foreign labor wasn’t displacing American jobseekers.

The ESD received 112 resumes for farm jobs, but most came from people from other countries, while others did not meet job requirements, according to Dan Zeitlin, director of employment system policy.

Farm labor advocates asked ESD to step up recruitment of U.S. workers to fill farm jobs, alleging that farmers were using the H-2A visa program to supplant the domestic workforce.

Northwest Justice Project attorney Michele Besso said she believes COVID, which closed employment offices, hampered recruitment.

“I was shocked to hear that number (zero). It was very disappointing,” she said. “We don’t know the numbers, but we know there are local workers.”

Farms can hire H-2A workers if U.S. workers are unavailable, according to U.S. Labor Department regulations. Once farms apply for H-2 workers, ESD tries to recruit U.S. workers to fill the positions.

Washington farmers this year requested about 29,000 foreign workers, most from Mexico. Some workers fill more than one contract.

With the use of foreign farmworkers rising, the ESD and labor advocates lobbied lawmakers in 2019 to create a new office to inspect farms that hire H-2A workers. The legislation also called on ESD to improve recruitment of U.S. workers.

WAFLA executive director Dan Fazio, who obtains H-2A workers for Washington farmers, said he wasn’t surprised ESD didn’t place any farmworkers.

“I’m not faulting them for not finding anyone. I fault them for not telling people it was a fool’s errand,” he said.

Fazio said he hoped that critics of the H-2A program will recognize that farms turn to foreign workers because of a labor shortage, not to depress wages or exploit people who are tied to one employer.

”The allegation has been that employers use the H-2A program to displace U.S. workers because they (the foreign workers) won’t complain,” he said. “This statistic shows that that allegation is not true. No one is using the H-2A program so they can have employees they can abuse.”

Although employment offices were closed, ESD went beyond posting job openings online. The department said it tried to recruit farmworkers at job fairs, and through radio ads, flyers and posters.

Zeitlin disclosed that ESD didn’t place any workers to fill H-2A job orders in a letter to state Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver. Zeitlin was following up on a question Harris asked during a Sept. 22 legislative committee meeting.

The pandemic closed employment offices and made recruiting farmworkers challenging, Zeitlin said. Farmworkers tend to visit jobs centers and may have struggled with the online system, he said.

Washington Growers League executive director Mike Gempler said the fact ESD couldn’t find farmworkers reflects a tight labor market.

The agricultural industry has a responsibility to do a good job recruiting domestic workers, but it can’t recruit workers who aren’t there, said Gempler, who serves on a committee that advises ESD on farmworker recruitment.

”The H-2A program is saving the industry’s bacon, so I would hope the public sees that it’s certainly serving its purpose, Gempler said.

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