OLYMPIA — A state fee on Washington growers who hire foreign seasonal workers would undercut lobbying to get the federal government to properly fund the H-2A program, according to farm groups.
The fee would signal that Washington is willing to pay and take pressure off federal officials, Washington State Dairy Federation labor policy expert Scott Dilley said at a House hearing Thursday.
"It gives the feds an out," he said.
Lawmakers are considering letting the Employment Security Department collect fees from farmers to make up for a shortfall between what the department gets from the U.S. Department of Labor and what it spends processing applications, surveying wages and inspecting working conditions.
Under Senate Bill 5438, ESD could charge up to $75 per H-2A worker, plus a $500 application fee. The first 10 workers would be exempt from the head tax. The state fee would be in addition to a federal fee farms pay.
The state fees would go into effect in two years unless the department receives more federal money. ESD says it gets $300,000 a year now, but needs about $2 million.
Federal funding has been flat, but farms are recruiting more H-2A workers. Washington farmers hired more than 24,000 foreign seasonal guestworkers last year. If a five-year trend continues, the number will top 30,000 this year, according to ESD.
The department's government relations director, Nick Streuli, said ESD supports the H-2A program and disputed claims by labor activists that the department considers the foreign workers a "captive workforce."
"We believe the H-2A program is vitally important to the agricultural industry in Washington. This bill represents our commitment to that belief," he told the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee.
Streuli said ESD would not impose fees if the federal government sufficiently increases funding in the next two years.
"Regardless of whether or not the bill passes, we absolutely intend to continue advocating at the federal level for increased funding because that's where funding should come from for this program," he said. "The problem is, it's not, and the use of the program is increasing dramatically, and we've got to do something."
The Democratic-sponsored bill passed the Senate along mostly party-lines. Thursday's hearing reprised testimony at previous hearings. Labor activists said foreign workers and the H-2A program are vulnerable to abuse. Farmers said the H-2A program is growing because they can't find enough U.S. workers and that foreign workers are treated well enough to return year after year.
Washington State Tree Fruit Association President Jon DeVaney said after the hearing that a state fee would weaken Washington's position if federal policymakers redistribute H-2A funding among the states.
"We're trying to not have Washington be put at the bottom of the pile," said DeVaney, who is also chairman of the National Council of Agricultural Employers.
Farmers now pay a federal fee of up to $1,000 to bring in H-2A workers. ESD originally proposed to charge farms beginning this year another $1,000 to apply for workers and $100 per worker for the first 1,000 workers and $50 for every additional worker.
Under the Senate bill, ESD would get more money for the H-2A program from another department fund for the next two years. If lobbying efforts fail to get more federal support, state fees could go into effect in July 2021.
The bill would set up a committee made up of farm and worker representatives to advise ESD on fees.
The labor committee has tentatively scheduled the bill for a vote April 2.