Prison paid $22 an hour for inmates to pick prized varieties
By DAN WHEAT
QUINCY, Wash. -- They've never picked fruit before so they're not as fast as experienced pickers, but inmates from Olympic Correction Center in Forks have been transported 300 miles to pick apples in Quincy.
They're helping out with what Kirk Mayer, manager of Washington Growers Clearing House Association, said is the worst labor shortage in 10 years during the Washington apple harvest.
They started Oct. 31 and were to work at least a week, maybe longer if weather is good.
State prison crews have been used to fight forest fires and in other Department of Natural Resources forest work but never to help harvest an agricultural crop, said Danielle Wiles, assistant director of correctional industries for the state Department of Corrections.
The idea originated, she said, a couple of weeks earlier when Gov. Chris Gregoire, the Department of Agriculture and tree fruit growers discussed ways to get apples picked.
A late maturing crop due to a cool, wet spring and a shortage of pickers has left growers scrambling. Harvest, normally done about Nov. 10, may push into the third week of November if there's not too much freezing or rain, Mayer said.
About 43,000 to 48,000 seasonal workers are usually employed in Washington apple orchards during peak harvest in October. Of that, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates 70 percent are illegal aliens.
Nighttime lows have dropped below freezing, causing some damage to unharvested fruit. The cold hasn't been extreme enough to do extensive damage, Mayer said.
Fuji, Braeburn, Cripps Pink and a few Granny Smith and Red Delicious remain to be picked, Mayer said.
Probably 10 to 15 percent of the estimated 106.3-million-box crop still is on trees, said Bruce Grim, executive director of the Washington State Horticultural Association.
Hiring prison inmates to pick is expensive but probably works for higher-return club variety apples, such as Jazz and Pacific Rose, Grim said.
The inmates are working at one of the Quincy orchards of McDougall & Sons Inc., of Wenatchee.
"We realize it's not as efficient as experienced pickers, but the ability to get more fruit off the trees made it worth paying a little more," said Scott McDougall, co-owner.
The company had 240 foreign and 60 domestic H-2A guestworker program pickers that it lost Oct. 30 after a one-week extension of their contracts expired, he said.
"We were down to a shell of a crew and 7,500 bins, roughly worth $1.5 million, to go," he said.
McDougall is paying $22 per hour per picker for 105 inmates, with $8.67 of that going to the inmate and the rest for housing and food so state tax revenues are not used, Wiles said. After sentencing fines and fees are subtracted, the inmates keep $1 to $2 per hour, she said.
H-2A pickers make $10.60 per hour. A good, experienced regular picker can average $15 per hour at piece rates, which vary by variety, McDougall said.
The inmates are volunteers who are physically fit and presented a minimal security risk, she said. The Olympic center had the most ready to go, she said. They were in state tents the first two nights and then moved into McDougall H-2A housing at the orchard, she said.
McDougall is the only company that expressed interest in using the program. There's probably too little time left in the season to make it work for anyone else, Wiles said.
State WorkSource offices had 708 picker openings on Oct. 31 compared with 1,075 on Oct. 26, so the shortage was easing a little, Mayer said.
Harold Schell, director of field services at Chelan Fruit Cooperative, said he thinks most of the industry is in fair shape despite having a worse labor shortage than in 2005. "Bits and pieces" may not get harvested, Schell said.
"We have 25,000 bins left to harvest out of 350,000," he said. "So we're 90 percent in. It's been a struggle. It's been late and not having the bodies and days lost due to rain earlier in the fall."
Every grower could have used more help, he said. There's been a lot of trading and jockeying of crews back and forth between neighbors, he said.
McDougall said he has about 100 bins worth of over-mature apples on trees at Tonasket that will be picked for processing.
Some Golden Delicious didn't get picked as growers turned to varieties of greater value, Grim said. The situation could be far worse if good weather had not held as long as it has, he said.
The industry has seen the picker shortage coming for years, given the government crackdown on illegal immigration from Mexico, Schell said.
"It's something we will have to work with and deal with. Our industry is dependent on hand labor," he said. "It could become more acute. It's encouraging to hear our governor and legislators speaking up about it."
The shortage highlights the need for immigration reform or a guestworker program that works better than H-2A, Grim said.
A more normal spring and longer picking season could help next year, but picker shortages could increase and hurt the industry, he said.
"The result could be we won't have orchards here and will be buying our apples from Mexico," he said.