The minimum wage for H-2A visa foreign guestworkers in Washington and Oregon has been increased 27 cents an hour to $12.69 for 2016 by the U.S. Department of Labor.
The rate went up 56 cents to $11.89 per hour in California and up 61 cents to $11.75 in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
The rate is down 10 cents to $11.27 in Nevada, Utah and Colorado and up 66 cents to $11.20 in Arizona and New Mexico.
The mandatory minimum, known as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate or AEWR, is based on Department of Labor surveys of agricultural wages by region. It is above state minimum wages and is intended to prevent wages of similarly employed U.S. workers from being adversely affected by the importation of foreign workers.
“We wish it wouldn’t go up because the (federal H-2A) program is expensive. It’s a high minimum wage added onto housing and transportation growers provide,” said Dan Fazio, director of WAFLA, formerly the Washington Farm Labor Association, in Olympia.
Idaho’s AEWR is 62 percent higher than its minimum wage of $7.25 per hour and “that’s substantial,” he said. It increases industry’s costs, he said.
The increases Idaho and California reflect tightening labor supplies, he said.
Most pickers make more than the AEWR on piece rate because they work fast. But AEWR increases push piece rates higher, Washington tree fruit companies have said.
The highest 2016 AEWR in the nation is the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas at $13.80. The lowest is Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina at $10.59.
A year ago the rate increased 55 cents per hour in Washington and Oregon and yet the use of H-2A workers in Washington still rose from 9,077 in 2014 to 11,844 in 2015.
Increases have been largest after big crop years in which wages rise because of larger labor shortages, Fazio said.
“In the Pacific Northwest we have a severe labor shortage,” he said. “The last time the state conducted a labor survey was almost two years ago. The shortage was nearly 15 percent. We need another survey. It’s crucial, but we can tell labor is short because we get few, if any, referrals from the state.”
He was referring to required advertising for domestic workers at the AEWR rate before an employer can get DOL approval for H-2A workers.
Washington uses more H-2A workers than any other Western state, mainly in cultivation and harvest of tree fruit. Use in packing tree fruit is increasing. Most of the workers come from Mexico.
“We will have nearly 15,000 (H-2A) in 2016. Imagine what we would do if we had 15,000 fewer seasonal workers. We would be sunk, devastated,” Fazio said.
The H-2A program allows agricultural employers to hire foreign guest workers on temporary work visas to fill seasonal jobs. Employers must show a shortage of U.S. workers in the area and provide housing, transportation and a minimum wage.
Rapid growth of H-2A workers in landscape nurseries, berries and tree fruit is likely in Oregon and in tree fruit and hops in Idaho as annual growth slows from 40 to 15 percent in Washington where use already is high, Fazio has said.
Wafla hired and provided to growers 7,895 of the 11,844 H-2A workers in Washington in 2015, DOL statistics show. Zirkle Fruit Co., Selah, hired 2,889.
The DOL certified 17,942 H-2A workers for Florida in 2015, 17,696 for North Carolina and 14,393 for Georgia. Washington ranked fourth at 11,844 and California was fifth at 8,591. Louisiana, Kentucky, New York, Arizona and South Carolina completed the top 10.
Oregon hired about 250 H-2A workers in 2015 and is expected to increase by 100 this year, WAFLA has said. Idaho was at 30 and likely will increase to 50.
The top 10 H-2A users in 2015 by crop or occupation were: tobacco, 14,544; berries, 12,520; apples, 7,507; hay and straw, 6,989; oranges, 5,882; melons, 5,843; nursery and greenhouse, 5,109; agricultural equipment operators, 4,974; fruits and vegetables, 4,639; and onions, 4,610.