The Washington Senate in a 26-21 vote approved a bill creating a new fee to be paid by farmers who rely on H-2A visa guest workers to harvest crops. Proponents of SB 5438 sponsored by Majority Caucus Chair John McCoy (D-38) argue that the fee is needed to cover the costs of the program that is critically underfunded by the federal government, despite the fact that Washington ranks third in the country for the number of guest workers.
However, some legislators blasted the proposal prior to the Mar. 6 Senate floor vote when numerous amendments that had been introduced were rejected, saying the fee amounts to nothing more than a job tax on farmers.
“It is so frustrating when our job base has been so under attack by this legislature this year,” Sen. Doug Ericksen (R-42) said. “To always have the people who live in the cities who don’t have farms telling the people who live in the country who do have farms how to do it is extremely frustrating. We need jobs in the rest of Washington state also.”
The federal H-2A temporary agricultural visa program is partially managed by the Employment Security Department (ESD)’s Advisory Committee on behalf of the U.S. Department of Labor. However, the state agency says it’s not receiving enough funding to keep up with the 1,000 percent increase in guest workers in the last decade.
“We are really out of capacity,” President Pro Tempore Karen Kesier (D-33). “The H-2A program has grown so fast and become such an important part of the agricultural industry.”
Under SB 5438, the state would create the Office of Agricultural and Seasonal Workforce services within ESD to manage applications and conduct field checks, among other duties. It would also collect a fee from farmers for every worker. The fee rate cannot be higher than $75, and there would be an exemption for the first 10 workers. SB 5438’s companion bill is HB 1398, sponsored by Rep. Laurie Dolan (D-22), which failed to clear the House Committee on Labor & Workplace Standards before the legislative cutoff date.
Unlike other proposed fees or taxes, there’s no dispute on either side over whether the money would actually go to the intended program. An amendment introduced by Sen. Jim Honeyford (R-15) and approved by the Senate limits the fee revenue to the guest worker program.
Instead, the controversy stems from the fee itself; farmers and growers already pay a fee to the federal government for the program. To add another one at the state level amounts to “double taxation,” Honeyford told colleagues. The average cost for a farm to participate in the program is roughly $2,500 a year for each worker.
“Many of the growers in my district…are really struggling to make it,” Sen. Brad Hawkins (R-12) said. “Let’s not add to that with this bill.”
A similar observation was made by Sen. Curtis King (R-14). “Not all of these farms are making money hand over fist. Some of them are just barely getting by.”
Republican Leader Mark Schoesler (R-9) said that farmers already have a large financial burden in the form of local and state taxes. “Why are we trying to increase it?”
SB 5438 has been referred to the House Labor & Workplace Standards Committee.