OLYMPIA — Senate Democrats passed a bill Wednesday to allow the Employment Security Department to tax farms that hire foreign workers, legislation that some Republicans said continues a pattern of assaulting agriculture's finances and integrity.
The employment department says it needs money to fulfill administrative duties related to the federal H-2A program. The Senate's newest member, Democrat Liz Lovelett of Anacortes, said the state needs the money to investigate "deplorable" conditions on farms.
Republicans opposed the fees and linked it to other Democratic-sponsored bills this session, including one that would require Washington farmers to report whether they use slaves.
"In the 25 years I've been in the Legislature, I've never had a session where I really feel the language and rhetoric has been so much against our farms, and I'm disgusted," said Sen. Jim Honeyford, who represents the Yakima Valley.
Senate Bill 5438 would allow the employment department to charge growers up to $500 to apply for H-2A workers and up to another $75 per foreign worker. The first 10 workers would be exempt from the head tax. With support from Democrats only, the bill passed 26-21 and now goes to the House.
The employment department originally proposed a $1,000 application fee and $100 per worker to collect $2 million a year to hire 14 employees for a new office to enforce H-2A regulations and explore other farmworker issues. The proposal was embraced by such groups as Columbia Legal Services and Community to Community Development, which said foreign workers were ripe to be abused.
Appointed to office in February, Lovelett said "living and working conditions" of many farmworkers were deplorable.
"There are farmworkers who are coming to our state, and they are suffering from civil- and human-rights abuses, and we need to do the right thing and fund these agencies who have the ability to investigate and bring accountability to the farms who are violating workplace standards and bringing harm to workers," Lovelett said.
Lovelett did not mention specific farms. Efforts to obtain further comment from her through her spokesman were unsuccessful.
The state Department of Health inspects farmworker housing and posts reports online. "They have to meet a standard," said Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake.
Republicans questioned the logic of attacking the humaneness of a program that drew more than 24,000 foreign farmworkers to Washington last year. The employment department projects the number this year will be about 30,000.
"If the conditions are that deplorable, why would they keep coming back?" Warnick asked.
The legislation has been revised to focus on funding tasks already performed by the employment department, such as verifying a shortage of U.S. workers, surveying wages and investigating complaints.
The U.S. Department of Labor provides the state with about $300,000 a year, but the employment department says funding has been flat while the number of H-2A workers has increased. Farm groups argue that Congress should be lobbied to increase funding.
Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said farm groups are right, but so is the employment department.
"We know we need a lot more money to run this program on behalf of the federal government, and we need to get that money from somewhere, so it seems fair to ask the employers who are benefitting from the program to help shoulder part of that burden," she said.
Democrats rejected a Republican proposal to appropriate $1 million over two years to the employment department and convene a task force to study farmworker conditions and finding more U.S. workers.
Senate Bill 5693 would require dairy farmers and produce growers to report incidents of slavery, peonage or human trafficking to retailers who sell their products. Democrats on the Senate Labor and Commerce Committee endorsed the bill, but it has not been brought up for a vote by the full Senate.