Fears of government audits tightens labor supply
By DAN WHEAT
More Washington state tree fruit growers will use H-2A guestworkers this year as a hedge against a potential picker shortage, the director of the Washington Farm Labor Association says.
Given last fall's estimated shortage of 2,000 to 4,500 pickers during apple harvest, growers worry large crops and greater enforcement against illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexican border will leave them short-handed again, said Dan Fazio, director of the association in Olympia.
In 2011, 3,182 people were certified by the U.S. Department of Labor to work as H-2A workers in Washington. Most worked in tree fruit. That number will increase by at least 500 this year without even counting plans by some large companies, said Fazio, who assists growers with H-2A applications.
Under the H-2A guestworker program, the federal government allows companies to hire temporary workers from Mexico and other foreign countries.
He said he knows of five medium-sized growers using the program for the first time and 10 others who wanted to but decided it was too costly and cumbersome.
Growers will gain a few hundred workers by greater use of labor contractors and refugee workers, but they also are assembling and retaining crews earlier and paying more, Fazio said.
Paying more doesn't always work, said Dale Foreman, owner of Foreman Fruit Co., Wenatchee, and president of U.S. Apple Association. He said he couldn't get pickers last fall at $150 per day. He planned to use H-2A this year but concluded it's too expensive and unworkable.
Now he's trying to establish networks with California growers to share workers but said it's a slow process.
Tree fruit growers from several states received good response lobbying Capitol Hill for H-2A reform on March 22 but were told it won't happen in this election year, Foreman said.
Stemilt AgServices, the orchard subsidiary of the state's largest tree fruit company, Stemilt Growers Inc., Wenatchee, hired 250 H-2A workers -- the most ever -- in 2009, said Andy Gale, Stemilt AgServices general manager. The company turned to farm labor contractors the last two years because H-2A was too expensive, he said.
This year, Stemilt is applying for 250 H-2A workers as a hedge against a shortage and as part of its total 1,200 orchard workers, Gale said.
"We've been tight even this spring," he said. "It could be difficult this summer. With the price of gas, people won't be as mobile. We could have fewer pickers from California."
McDougall & Sons Inc., Wenatchee, will try to avoid using prison inmates at $22 per hour to pick apples this year but doing so at the end of last season saved about $400,000 worth of high-value fruit, said Scott McDougall, co-president.
The company is adding housing for 60 more H-2A workers this year, bringing its total to 360, he said.
The prevailing wage requirement of H-2A contracts means growers have to pay the equivalent of at least $10.92 per hour and the same for any domestic workers hired during an H-2A contract period, McDougall said. That drives up wages for all workers, he said.
Fear of stepped up audits by Immigration and Custom Enforcement has companies, including McDougall & Sons, looking harder at I-9 employment eligibility documents before hiring people, McDougall said.
That's cutting down on some hiring and increasing the tightness of an already tight labor supply, he said.