A Full Plate For Washington Agriculture: Labor Needs, Visa And Immigration Reform

A Full Plate For Washington Agriculture: Labor Needs, Visa And Immigration Reform
The food and agriculture industry generates about $50 million annually in Washington state economic activity, and employs 160,000. But there still are not enough workers to fill the needs of employers. Photo: bamco.com

The national trend in agriculture is an unsettling one, and hits close to home in Washington state. Despite growing demand for output, there are not enough workers to fill the jobs. The federal H-2A visa program for temporary or seasonal agricultural workers does not serve industries like dairy well, which require a year-round workforce. Nor does it help meet the shorter-term employment needs of smaller fruit orchards.

For larger farming operations, delays in processing H-2A paperwork can lead to costly missed harvests, agriculture sources say.

Some Washington Congressional representatives are among a group of more than 100 seeking changes to the how H-2A process is administered.

Feeding The State, Nation, And World

Feeding the state, nation and world is no small undertaking for Washington farms and farmworkers. In 2013, the $49 billion food and agriculture industry in the state employed approximately 160,000 people. It comprised 13 percent of Washington’s economy.

Washington is an agriculture industry leader, nationally. It is first in U.S. production of apples, sweet cherries, grapes, pears and hops. In 2015, $797 million in fresh apples were exported from Washington and the demand is growing.

The ag sector of the state is positioned to support national growth, particularly if production here can reach its full potential. U.S. fresh fruit exports are projected to hit $7.38 billion by 2024, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s projections (p. 75). The estimate is just shy of a $2 billion increase from the predicted $5.58 billion in fresh fruit exports for 2016.

Labor Supply Running Short

Labor supply is one of several challenges facing Washington agriculture, though. According to a 2015 state report, ag employers across Washington reported an estimated labor shortage of more than eight percent in the 2011, 2012, and 2013 peak seasons of mid-September through mid-October (p. 18). This was up sharply from prior years.

Scott Dilley, communications director for the Washington Dairy Federation said, “Right now there are certain jobs in the domestic workforce that people don’t want to do…we need to bring in workers…and reinvest in our local economy.”

Ignacio Marquez, community liaison for Washington State Department of Agriculture, told Lens, “Harvesting is so time-sensitive and the industry normally needs a lot of workers for a short period…so it’s always been a challenge to find folks that will do this kind of work.”

Marquez said the workforce tends to either retire or move on to other industries. There is no established native workforce “that can move in and start doing the work” when shortages occur, said Marquez.

He added that employers do rely on the federal H-2A program to bring in those that have “valid work authorization.”

What The H-2A Visa Program Does Not Do

The H-2A program lets foreign nationals into the U.S. for temporary agriculture jobs. The system is similar to the H-1B visa, which allows employment of foreign workers in fields such as computer science, engineering or medicine.

Dilley told Lens that since dairy work is year-round, the H-2A program is of little help to that industry.

In addition, smaller ag businesses don’t benefit much from the H-2A program because they only need workers for a short period of time, according to Mike Gempler. He’s executive director for the Washington Growers League.

Even for larger growers, there is a series of tight deadlines that make it difficult for farmers to secure workers by a date certain, he said. “That can be destructive economically if you count on getting employees in time or harvesting a perishable crop,” said Gempler.

‘Crops Can’t Wait On Paperwork’

At least 20 states including Washington have reported administrative delays using the H-2A program,  according to American Farm Bureau Federation President Vincent “Zippy” Duvall.

“Many farmer members have called us and state farm bureaus asking for help,” he said. “Paperwork delays have created a backlog of 30 days or more in processing H-2A applications” at both the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

Duvall said processing and procedural delays, such as the government using U.S. mail instead of e-mail, are leading to losses from unharvested crops.

“Crops can’t wait on paperwork,” Duvall said. DOL “is routinely failing to approve applications 30 days prior to the day farmers need workers….we’ve heard from members who are already missing their window of opportunity to harvest. They are already facing lost revenue.”

Congressional Members Seek H-2A Fixes

U.S. Representative Dan Newhouse of Washington (R-4), along with a bi-partisan group of 101 other U.S. representatives, signed a letter this month to DOL Secretary Thomas Perez and USCIS Director León Rodriguez asking for changes to the H-2A program.

“The H-2A program is the sole legal visa program available to production agriculture although it is limited to labor of a ‘temporary or seasonal nature.’ Although still accounting for less than 10 percent of all seasonal farm workers, employment of H-2A workers has nearly tripled in the past five years,” the letter read.

Signers of the letter cite delays in the past two years from both DOL and USCIS. They also accent that DOL does not always follow the statutory requirement to respond to applications 30 days prior to the farmer’s date of need.

Delays ‘Devastating’

“These delays are devastating to growers and ranchers that cannot wait to plant, tend, and harvest,” wrote the lawmakers. DOL “must comply with the law, and the failure to comply is unacceptable.” The letter concludes by urging agencies to “expeditiously” process H-2A applications where possible. It states, “Our farms, our economies, and the livelihoods of our constituents depend upon timely application processing and visa issuance in advance of farmers’ dates of need.”

U.S. Rep. Suzan DelBene of Washington (D-1) was among those leading support for the letter.

“In Washington, where specialty crop prices are relatively stable and in certain circumstances, even on the rise, access to labor is becoming a perpetual challenge. As a nation, we are reliant on temporary and seasonal workers, often through the H-2A visa program, to meet the labor needs of agriculture,” DelBene said in a recent blog post.

DelBene said that the program has not been administered in a way that recognizes the seasonal and perishable nature of the agriculture industry.

Fixes to the H-2A program are not the only way to yield a greater and more stable labor supply for agriculture in Washington state and the U.S.

As fraught as the issue is with political controversy, and despite recent setbacks, immigration reform is likely to re-surface after the November elections.

Immigration Reform Shelved For Near-Term

An estimated one million farmworkers in the United States in 2012 were U.S. citizens or lawful immigrants according to the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), making up 33 percent and 18 percent of the ag workforce, respectively.

According to NAWS data cited by the organization Farmworker Justice, approximately 48 percent of farmworkers in the United States lacked work authorization in 2012 – but other estimates cited by Farmworker Justice run as high as 70 percent.

In late 2014, President Barack Obama announced an immigration reform initiative including a plan seeking to protect up to five million illegal immigrants from deportation, and to allow them to work legally in the U.S.

However, late last year Texas and 25 other states sued the federal government to block the plan, arguing the president overstepped his constitutional authority.

Last week, the Supreme Court announced it was evenly divided over Obama’s immigration plan, which prevents it from advancing in the near term.

“We’re hoping that after the presidential elections we’ll have an opportunity to support and actually win passage of comprehensive immigration reform and give more flexibility and an easier way for agriculture workers to come in here,” said Gempler.

Timely Harvests Grow The Economy

Agriculture industry leaders in Washington say in the meantime, there remain crops to harvest, and economic value to capture.

Tim Kovis, communications manager for Washington State Tree Fruit Association, told Lens the organization supports comprehensive reform of guest worker programs, including the H-2A program. The Association is currently communicating with DOL to streamline the H-2A process, he said.

Federal lawmakers need “to make sure we don’t leave apples, cherries, and pear rotting on the trees,” said Kovis.

Labor-Saving Technology Eyed

With continuing labor supply concerns, and federal immigration reform slowed, the ag sector continues to explore labor-saving technology.

Washington State Rep. Brian Blake (D-19) said he recently toured a raspberry farm which used mechanical pickers. He said although it may mean fewer workers in some functions, the end result is a higher-skilled workforce.

“It might displace several workers, but the workers who are going to run and maintain the machines are going to need different skills and going to be pretty important to the businesses that are hiring,” said Blake.

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