A Senate proposal to address the growing number of workers under the federal H-2A temporary agricultural visa program in Washington state received unanimous support from House lawmakers on April 11, but only after a compromise was reached removing a fee to fund it. ESSSB 5438 sets up an Office of Agricultural and Seasonal Workforce Services through the Employment Securities Department (ESD) to manage the federal program that lacks sufficient funding.
Currently Washington ranks third in the country for the number of guest workers who harvest crops including pears, apples and cherries. Those workers have also increased by 1,000 percent since 2009. ESD partially manages the federal program but has said it doesn’t receive enough money to handle the influx over the last decade. It requested $1.7 million but received only $300,000.
“Employment Security Department has a difficult job,” Rep. Gina Masbrucker (R-14) said on the House floor. “They went from not that many workers to all of a sudden having up to an estimated 30,000. This is a congressional program; these dollars should come from Congress and as you heard they’re not stepping up.”
However, the original bill drew protests from farmers as well as legislators representing agricultural regions in the state due to a proposed fee for every worker employed, save for the first 10. Farmers already pay a federal fee for the program, and the average cost for a farm to participate in the H-2A program is around $2,500 annually – for each worker. Though it passed in the Senate on Mar. 6, some state senators argued that it would represent “double taxation” on the agricultural community.
Under the new bill version resulting from an amendment approved prior to the April 11 vote, the legislation creates the Office of Agricultural and Seasonal Workforce Services within ESD to manage applications and conduct field checks. However, the bill language limits its authority to specific duties. It also eliminates the fee, even if federal funds are not sufficient for the program, along with a clause stating that the program would be funded through appropriations.
The office commissioner is authorized to create an eight-member advisory group to look at, among other things, “the costs incurred by the office to administer the H-2A program, the funds to administer other department programs for farmworkers, and the amount of funds allocated by the federal government to administer the H-2A program.”
“I love the fact that we were able to reach across both sides …to have discussions to try to make this a better path,” Masbrucker said.