Catching up with growing guest worker demand

Catching up with growing guest worker demand
A proposed bill request from the state Employment Security Department (ESD) would impose a fee on Washington agricultural employers who rely on federal H-2A visa guest workers to harvest crops. However, one industry leader says that although more program funding is needed, the solution should be done at the federal level. Photo: TJ Martinell

In recent years Washington’s agricultural employers have dramatically increased the use of H-2A visa guest workers to harvest crops; the number of workers requested has increased by 1,000 percent since 2009.

However, the state agency tasked by the federal government with overseeing portions of the program says funding has failed to keep up.  It is now working on a possible bill request to the state legislature to create a new internal office funded by a fee on employers who use the guest worker program.

Although there is disagreement among stakeholders as to the merits of the agency proposal, few if any deny the program requires more funding.

“The rapid growth of the H-2A program…will quickly outstrip the ability of agencies to keep up and administer,” Washington Growers League Executive Director Mike Gempler said. He is a member of the state Employment Security Department (ESD)’s Advisory Committee, which manages some portions of the federal H-2A temporary agricultural visa program on behalf of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Those responsibilities include:

  • Field checks to ensure compliance with contracts;
  • Oversight of the appeals process; and
  • Outreach and education of guest workers.

Since 2013, ESD has received $300,000 in annual funding from the U.S. Department of Labor to cover the costs. However, the ESD says the funding is insufficient to keep up with its added workload due to increased demand. Since 2007, use of the federal program in Washington state has increased by 800 percent. By 2019, ESD expects Washington to rank third in the nation for the number of employed guest workers.

ESD Legislative and Executive Operations Director Nick Streuli told Lens that “our repeated request to fund the program at the level we need have been denied, so we’ve attempted to have these conversations with the Department of Labor, and they have not funded us to the level that we need, especially given the substantial increase.”

The proposed bill request from ESD in its present form would set up an internal Office of the State Monitor Advocate to expand its current workload. The additional duties would be paid for by a $1,000 application fee for each H-2A application and $100 per worker for the first 1,000 workers requested, and $50 per worker above 1,000.

The proposed fee would generate an estimated $3.2 million.

Streuli stressed that “this is draft legislation, and we really want to continue to have those conversations. We want to hear from both sides. We want to hear from everybody, what’s working (and) what’s not working.”

However, Gempler argues that the bill as written would impose too high a fee that would force some growers to pay $250,000 or more a year to participate.

“We’re concerned about the creep from federal to state authority,” he added. “This is a federal program. We believe the authority and responsibility for monitoring is primarily with the federal government, so we would like to see a federal solution.”

The view is shared by Washington Tree Fruit Association President Jon DeVaney, who told Lens they are still discussing the bill with ESD.

He says growers already pay an application fee to the feds meant to cover the program’s costs. “If an insufficient amount has been appropriated…that’s a problem that needs to be dealt with by the federal government. Exactly how much is the right amount and how much work needs to get done are thorny and complicated management questions.”

Regardless of where the money comes from, an efficient and smooth process within the guest worker program is critical for Washington’s agricultural employers. The industry contains 12 percent of its overall economy and ranks second in export commodities. Apples alone make up $2.4 billion of the $10.6 billion in agricultural production.

Gempler warned that there is the potential for “tremendous economic damage” to certain growers if the federal program isn’t appropriately funded. “Employers will not be able to receive the crews of people that they’ve applied for in a timely manner, and they’ll be late for harvests of perishable crops. We can’t afford that. With Mother Nature, we have to do certain work at a certain time.”

Washington farmers are also facing retaliatory tariffs from countries such as China. A third of the fruit grown in Washington is exported overseas.

“This is a really challenging time for a lot of fruit growers,” DeVaney said.

ESD will first require approval from Governor Jay Inslee’s Office sometime this month before the legislature will consider it.

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