Washington was 8.5 percent short of the agricultural labor it needed in September, according a monthly survey by the state Department of Employment Security.

That corresponds with an 8.8 percent shortage the prior September and an 8.6 percent shortage two years ago. It’s up from 7 percent in August of 2013, 6 percent in July and down from 8.8 percent in June.

Most of the shortage is in seasonal tree fruit work, but the 8.5 percent is within the norm of such surveys of the last two years, said John Wines, a department economic analyst who authored the report.

There were 42,460 apple harvest workers in September, Wines said. H-2A visa foreign guest workers and higher piece rate payments helped meet growers’ needs, Wines said.

The average piece rate for apple pickers increased 15.9 percent from $19.65 per bin in November 2010 to $22.77 in November 2011, he noted.

The monthly labor shortage estimates are based on agricultural operators’ responses to questions of whether they failed to complete some work due to lack of available seasonal labor and how many more employees they could have used.

The August number came from a return of 671 surveys out of 2,000 sent to agricultural operators. The response ratio is usually in that range.

Statewide seasonal agricultural employment increased 9 percent over the three years from September 2011 through September 2013, the report says. More people are working in tree fruit but it’s not enough to meet the demand of increased acreage production, Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association in Wenatchee, has said.

Total statewide agricultural employment increased an estimated 14.3 percent from September 2012 to September 2013, according to the report.

Statewide seasonal ag employment dropped 2 percent from September 2012 through September 2013. That’s mainly due to a smaller apple crop than a year ago, Wines said.

The report showed a September-to-September decrease of 4,880 workers in apples, 1,450 in miscellaneous vegetables, 1,030 in blueberries, 500 in grapes, 170 in wheat and grains and 20 in cucumbers.

It showed a September-to-September increase of 1,970 workers in hops, 1,660 in pears, 930 in potatoes, 540 in other tree fruit, 520 in raspberries, 500 in other seasonal, 210 in nursery, 140 in onion, 120 in cherries and 30 in bulbs.

The average inflation-adjusted seasonal wage rate was up 5.3 percent from two years earlier. The inflation-adjusted state minimum wage rose 3.5 percent during the same three years.

The state’s seasonal agricultural employment was estimated at 70,410 in September, down from 71,870 in September 2012. Total agricultural employment was estimated at 128,640 versus 112,510 a year earlier.

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