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 — For at least three years, Washington farmers won’t pay new state fees to hire foreign farmworkers, but could be charged as much as $75 per H-2A worker beginning in 2022, under a plan endorsed Thursday by the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee in a bipartisan vote.

The revised Senate Bill 5438 drops a plan by the Employment Security Department to impose fees this year to raise $2 million annually to help federal authorities oversee the H-2A program. ESD receives $300,000 from the federal government, but the department says that’s not enough in a state that’s growing more reliant on foreign farmworkers.

The labor committee’s top-ranking Republican, Curtis King of Yakima, said the delay will give state officials and farm groups time to lobby Congress for more money. If that fails, lawmakers will have a debate before forging ahead with state fees, he said.

“It gives us a chance to really go back and work in D.C., which is where I think the work needs to be done,” Curtis said. “If this hasn’t been addressed in a manner that we’re all hoping it can be through the federal government, we’ll be having this discussion again.”

The delay did not win over farm groups, which concede ESD should have more money, but are opposed to leaving open the possibility of eventually charging growers a state fee to participate in a federal program.

“Fundamentally, we think this is still not the right way to go,” Washington State Tree Fruit Association President Jon DeVaney said. “It needs a federal solution.

“We’re not opposed to proper and efficient oversight of H-2A,” he said. “We’re fighting about where the money will come from.”

As a partner with federal agencies, ESD makes sure growers are trying to recruit domestic workers and that foreign workers are being well treated. Federal financial support has been flat, even as growers annually bring in thousands more foreign workers, according to ESD.

In its current form, SB 5438 calls for lawmakers to put more money in the state’s next two-year budget for the H-2A program. The bill does not specify the amount.

If ESD determines in two years that federal support is still too little, it would draw up a fee schedule and start collecting money July 1, 2022.

The bill directs ESD to exempt from the fee the first 10 H-2A workers a farm hires. The fee, initially capped at $75 per worker, would be adjusted annually by inflation. Farmers also would pay an application fee. The amount is not specified in the bill.

ESD projects some 30,000 H-2A workers will come to Washington this year. In 2018, Washington farmers were allowed to fill 24,862 positions with H-2A workers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

In 2007, H-2A workers filled 1,794 farm jobs in the state.

The increase has attracted attention from labor groups and worker advocates, who argue the ESD needs more money to ensure farmers are complying with rules that require them to seek out U.S. workers before looking elsewhere, primarily Mexico.

Washington’s use of the H-1B program also has increased. In 2007, Washington businesses hired 9,927 temporary foreign workers as software developers, computer programmers, engineers, accountants and for other specialty occupations. In 2018, the number of foreign workers hired for such jobs was 52,522, according to the labor department.

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