Tree fruit growers scramble for pickers

Dan Wheat/Capital Press Daniel Walker, 31, prison inmate, with a bag full of Jazz apples at a McDougall and Sons orchard near Quincy, Wash., Nov. 1. Rather than regular inmates, like Walker, work release prisoners may be a cheaper alternative for more pickers next season.

Available solutions imperfect, labor director admits

Analysis

By DAN WHEAT

Capital Press

Washington tree fruit growers survived their worst picker shortage in a decade this past fall. With shortages likely for the next few years, it's not too early to plan ahead.

However, there appear to be no easy answers.

Four solutions offered by Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association, at his Dec. 7 workforce summit in Wenatchee all have their limits, which he acknowledged.

The solutions are greater use of the H-2A guestworker program and farm labor contractors and making use of refugees and state and county work release prisoners.

Fazio and Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association, agreed H-2A and contractors hold the most promise, as use of refugees and work-release prisoners is untested.

There were about 3,100 H-2A guestworkers in the state this year, mostly in tree fruit, Mayer said. But that's a sliver of the 40,000 to 45,000 seasonal workers involved in peak apple harvest in October. The shortage was estimated at 5 to 10 percent, meaning a top end of about 4,500.

For growers, H-2A is cumbersome and expensive. They must provide transportation from and back to the country of origin, housing and other needs. Fazio said he can help a lot more growers apply for H-2A workers but that the biggest drawback is the cost and time it takes for growers to build approved housing.

Small growers need extra workers for a month, but H-2A isn't cost-effective at less than 12 weeks, Fazio said. Sequential contracts or pooling or sharing H-2A workers could reduce costs, Fazio said. But sharing brings joint liability, which is not easily agreed to without strong trust between growers, Mayer said.

Andy Gale, general manager of Stemilt AgServices, said the company peaked in its usage of 250 H-2A workers in 2009 and turned to farm labor contractors the last two years because H-2A is too expensive. But, he said, the company will consider H-2A along with contractors in 2012.

Hiring workers through labor contractors costs 17 to 20 percent more than regular workers but the contractors take care of I-9s, W-4s and other employment forms and requirements, said Jon Warling and Mike Atkinson, farm labor contractors from Othello, Wash., and Hermiston, Ore., respectively.

Warling said he's supplied up to 350 pickers for cherries and sometimes has about 1,300 workers available.

H-2A is more expensive than contractors, said Lisa Mitchell, Gale's executive assistant.

H-2A adds about $4 per hour to picker costs and is more expensive than contractors under the Obama administration's stricter H-2A rules, Fazio said. But there are not enough registered contractors in the state, he said.

Mark Kadel, director of World Relief in Spokane, said there are about 3,000 refugees in Washington, mainly from Southeast Asia. They are legal and often have farm and gardening experience, he said, but not all of them are always available to work.

While an emergency effort provided 105 state prisoners to pick apples for McDougall & Sons Inc., Wenatchee, one week this fall, Fazio said he's promoting use of state and county work-release prisoners instead.

They're different because, unlike regular inmates, the grower does not have to pay for transportation, housing, food and security.

Lin Miller, a work release manager for the state Department of Corrections, said a few hundred work release prisoners are available in Spokane, Yakima and the Tri-Cities. They go to work during the day and return to their state facility at night.

Fazio believes greater use of H-2A, labor contractors, refugees and work release prisoners could provide 3,500 to 7,000 workers.

That may be optimistic. But Fazio, Mayer and Gale all agreed that those measures would be nowhere near enough in the event of a severe picker shortage -- one brought on by congressional passage of mandatory E-Verify without a better guestworker program.

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