OLYMPIA — The Senate Ways and Means Committee has endorsed new fees for Washington farmers who hire H-2A foreign guestworkers, passing a bill that has drawn more vocal opposition from agriculture than any other legislation this session.
The Democratic-controlled committee approved Senate Bill 5438 on a party-line vote, recommending its adoption by the full Senate.
The bill authorizes the Employment Security Department to begin collecting within two years up to $75 per H-2A worker and an application fee of up to $500.
Democrats rejected Republican-sponsored amendments to eliminate the application fee or cap it at $25.
The bill stems from a proposal by the employment department to collect $2 million a year for a new 14-employee “Office of the State Monitor Advocate.” The department originally proposed last fall to go beyond what it has done in the past to ensure foreign workers aren’t abused.
Since then, the department has shifted its emphasis, arguing it just needs more money to do what the federal government expects it to do.
The department says it receives about $300,000 a year from the U.S. Department of Labor for tasks such as inspecting farms, investigating complaints, surveying wages and verifying U.S. workers aren’t available.
The federal funding has been flat, while the workload has increased, according to the department. The department projects Washington farms will hire about 30,000 H-2A workers this year, almost 6,000 more than last year.
Labor groups and activists continue to say the employment department needs more money to curb abuses.
At a hearing Tuesday, Community to Community Development organizer Edgar Franks told the committee that more state oversight would head off labor lawsuits against farms.
“We need adequate oversight and monitoring from our state agencies to ensure workers are treated fairly and growers get their fruits and vegetables picked,” he said.
At the same hearing, farmers defended their industry.
John Huibregtse, chief financial officer of Sundquist Fruit in Yakima, said the farm gets most of its H-2A workers from the Mexican state of Durango. They are not a captive workforce, he said.
“Our experience in our seven years in the program (is that) nearly all of our H-2A workers return to us every single year,” he said. “And they have lists of their friends they bring to us to get into the program.”
The Senate committee amended the bill to rein in the employment department’s original ambition.
Fees would have to be spent on what the department does now, rather than the “additional work” the department envisioned in its proposal to the governor’s office last fall.
The department proposed then a $1,000 application fee and $100 per-worker fee.
Washington Tree Fruit Association President Jon DeVaney said the state should not collect any fee. He told the committee that agricultural groups are lobbying Congress to give states more money for the H-2A program.
Washington growers, he said, “are fine paying for adequate administration. They just don’t want to be asked to be the only growers in the country to pay twice for the same government services,” he said.