H-2A workers

Washington farmers Burr Mosby of Auburn and April Clayton of Orondo talk after they testified Feb. 7 in front of the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee on a bill that would impose a state fee on hiring foreign workers through the federal H-2A program. Mosby and Clayton said the new fee would worsen a shortage of workers for farmers who hire only domestic workers.

OLYMPIA — A new fee on foreign labor advocated by the Washington Employment Security Department and labor activists will worsen a worker shortage and leave more crops unharvested, two farmers told the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee Feb. 7.

The ESD has proposed that growers who recruit workers through the federal H-2A program pay the fee. Douglas County orchardist April Clayton and King County vegetable farmer Burr Mosby said they can't afford to hire foreign workers, but the fee would still hit them.

They said they already struggle to recruit domestic workers. A new state fee would undermine the federal program and make finding workers even harder, they said.

"The unintended consequence of destroying the H-2A program is that smaller farms like mine will not have the labor needed to harvest our fruit," said Clayton, who along with her husband, Mike, own a 160-acre cherry and apple orchard in Orondo.

"Unfortunately, it's becoming all too common for us to have to pick and choose which cherries we're going to harvest because we simply do not have the labor to get the fruit off the tree," she said.

The hearing was a second chance for farmers and farm groups to criticize ESD's request for $2 million a year for a new 14-employee Office of H-2A Compliance and Farm Labor. The House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee held a hearing on the proposal last month.

ESD has not proposed specific fees. Washington Growers League Executive Director Mike Gempler estimated the fee would have to be $80 to $100 per foreign worker, a figure the department does not dispute.

Gempler agreed the federal government should increase funding for the H-2A program, but he opposed the state imposing a new fee. "This will start pricing farm employers out of the program," Gempler said.

Mosby said he and his wife, Rosella, need as many as 90 workers during the harvest season. If larger farms abandon the H-2A program, it will make finding workers even harder, said Mosby.

"It'll put us out of business," Mosby said.

ESD says the proposal stems from a budget problem. The federal government gives the state agency about $300,000. In return, ESD is suppose to conduct a wage survey, certify that U.S. workers are unavailable, inspect working conditions and investigate complaints.

The survey alone costs the department more than it receives from the federal government, EDS legislative director Nick Streuli said.

Labor activists say they expect the office to protect H-2A workers from abuse. "This quasi-slave labor conditions are caused by the lack of oversight by Washington state," said Community to Community Development Executive Director Rosalinda Guillen.

ESD projects Washington farmers will hire 30,000 H-2A workers this coming year. Advocates of the bill said that foreign workers are being used to displace domestic workers. ESD proposes to establish a committee of labor advocates and farm groups to study possible "changes to state law" to increase employment of domestic farmworkers.

Sundquist Fruit Chief Financial Officer John Huibregtse said ESD has referred 12 domestic workers to the Yakima company in seven years. Five of the workers showed up, he said.

"I highlight that fact because I don't think that additional funding and an additional department is going to solve the asserted problem here," Sundquist said.

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