OLYMPIA — The House budget committee on Monday removed from a bill the threat of new fees on Washington farmers who hire H-2A workers.
Appropriations Committee Chairman Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, said federal officials should be lobbied to fund the U.S. Department of Labor program, which requires the state Employment Security Department to verify a shortage of American workers and inspect working conditions.
“The federal government has abdicated its responsibilities in what is a very sensitive subject involving immigrant labor,” Ormsby said.
The budget committee’s action was the latest in a series of amendments that has softened a proposal that labor activists saw as a way to beef up oversight of how farmers treat foreign workers.
ESD originally proposed charging farmers $1,000 to apply for H-2A workers, plus $100 per worker. ESD projected the fees would raise about $3 million a year, about 10 times as much as it receives now from the federal Labor Department. The state fees would have been in addition to federal fees that farmers pay.
The bipartisan vote by the Democratic-controlled budget committee showed broad support to instead lobby the federal government for money and for ESD to stay within its current responsibilities.
The bill will establish a new advisory committee on agricultural labor, a provision supported by farm groups as a forum for resolving issues.
“We’re very pleased with how it came out. It’s what the agricultural community has been advocating from the beginning,” Washington Farm Bureau associate director of government relations Bre Elsey said Tuesday.
If passed by the full House, the bill will have to be reconciled with the version passed by the Senate.
The Senate lowered and delayed the fees for at least two years. Ormsby accepted an amendment from Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, to delete the fees entirely.
Farm groups largely acknowledged that ESD needs more money to meet its responsibilities, but argued that state fees, even if put off until 2021, would undermine efforts to lobby for more federal funds.
Washington State Tree Fruit Association President Jon DeVaney said he thinks the Legislature will end up with a bill the organization can support. He added that farm groups will have to press federal officials for more support for ESD.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us to get some federal funding,” he said.
ESD says it gets about $300,000 a year from the U.S. Department of Labor. The funding has been flat, while the number of H-2A farmworkers has jumped. Washington farms hired more than 24,000 H-2A workers last year. If a 5-year trend continues, farms will recruit 30,000 this year, according to ESD.
The Senate has proposed appropriating $4.1 million over the next two years to support the H-2A program. ESD government relations director Nick Streuli said Tuesday he expects the House to follow suit.
“It would surprise me if they just passed the bill and didn’t fund it,” he said.
The bill calls for the advisory committee to have eight members — four picked by worker organizations and four by farm groups. Several state agencies would be participate in meetings.
“I think that’s a very important part of the bill. We need a forum to talk about issues related to the agricultural workforce,” Washington State Dairy Federation policy expert Scott Dilley said.
“I think we can solve things by sitting down and talking before they get to the point of going to the Legislature.”