Fees proposed for Washington farmers who hire foreign workers

A Custom Orchards crew harvests Honeycrisp apples on the south edge of Brewster, Wash., on Aug. 31. Washington state proposes a new fee to be paid by growers who use foreign guestworkers.

Washington farmers would pay thousands of dollars in new fees to beef up oversight of the H-2A program under a proposal by the Employment Security Department.

The number of foreign seasonal farmworkers in Washington has soared in recent years, while the money the state receives from the federal government to monitor working conditions has been flat. Washington Growers League Executive Director Mike Gempler said the employment department has a legitimate case for more money, but its proposal is too costly.

“I think it’s a tremendous amount of overkill,” he said Tuesday. “It’s already expensive to use the H-2A program and adding this on would make it less feasible for many growers.”

Washington farmers this year will hire approximately 30,000 foreign workers to fill jobs they couldn’t find U.S. residents to do. Although the H-2A program is guided by federal rules, the state inspects farms to ensure employers are complying with workplace and housing rules.

The department says it doesn’t have enough money to do the job. The department is proposing to charge farms $1,000 to apply to use H-2A workers, plus $100 per worker for the first 1,000. After that, the fee would drop to $50 per employee. The department estimates that if the fees were in place next year, they would raise $3.18 million, The department anticipates revenue would rise in subsequent years.

The department’s legislative director, Nick Streuli, said the number of H-2A workers has grown by more than 1,000 percent since 2009. The amount of money the department receives from the U.S. Department of Labor to oversee the program has remained at about $300,000 for several years, he said.

“We’ve been limping along for years. This was certainly not our first response,” he said. “There are specific tasks authorized by Congress that we need to accomplish, and we’re not receiving adequate funds to do that.”

The department would use fees collected from farmers to create the Office of the State Monitor Advocate, according to documents submitted to the state budget office. The department would continue doing what it has been doing, plus more, according to a summary of legislation the department is proposing.

The money includes a hot line for Spanish-speaking workers to report concerns and to fund what the department calls an adequate number of field inspections and audits.

Gempler said growers have an interest in government oversight to assure the public that foreign workers are well treated. The department’s proposal, however, sets up a new bureaucracy and calls for collecting millions of dollars a year, he said.

“I really believe that could be done for far less than a million dollars,” Gempler said.

The H-2A program also drawn accusations from activists that the foreign workers are vulnerable to being abused. “They have some political influence,” Gempler said. “It’s important we are able to show the H-2A program is being used in an ethical way.”

The federal government should increase funding to support a program meant to provide farmers with a legal workforce, he said. “It’s a federal solution, ultimately.”

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