The fight to fully fund guest worker program

The fight to fully fund guest worker program
A group of industry associations are advocating for Congress to double its funding for the Department of Labor and state grants to implement the H-2A guest worker program. Photo: freepik.com

Washington farmers in recent years have increased the number of applications for H-2A guest worker visas while the federal government has decreased funding to the Department of Labor and Washington state to implement that program. Now, industry groups are pushing for increased funding to address the problem.

“We have time to be able to get a federal fix before the state really visits this and decides what course they might need to pursue,” Washington Tree Fruit Association Communications Manager Tim Kovis said.

Last year, farmers applied for more than 24,000 visas, an increase of 1,000 percent from 2007. Between 2017 and 2018, the number of H-2A workers increased by a third. However, funding to the Department of Labor and states for the program was reduced by nine percent during the same timeframe. Last year, the Washington State Employment Securities Department (ESD) received only $300,000 of the requested $1.7 million.

In response, several proposals were introduced during this year’s legislative session to provide enough money for the ESD to fulfill its role in the program. ESSSB 5438 approved by state lawmakers sets up an Office of Agricultural and Seasonal Workforce Services through ESD. However, the initial bill included a fee on farmers for the use of guest workers that critics argued would amount to “double taxation,” since they already pay a fee through the program.

“If the state of Washington believes that they don’t get enough money to offset their costs, the way to fix it is not to just levy another fee onto our growers,” Kovis said. “That would put us at a disadvantage. We believe that the solution was to get the federal government to provide more resources, more reimbursement to the state.”

Kate Tynan is the senior vice president with the Northwest Horticultural Council that represents fruit growers, packagers and shippers. In an email to Lens, she wrote that their organization is pushing Congress to double the amount of funding toward the program. “This is a high priority for the industry.” The current House budget proposal would increase funding slightly for both the Department of Labor and state grants, while the Senate has yet to release its budget.

One of the underlying problems Kovis hopes to see changed concerns the use of H2-A fees paid by farmers. Rather than used to directly fund the program, revenue is instead sent to the general fund and then the sum appropriated by Congress back into the program.

“We want to keep the fees within the program,” Kovis said.

Coordinating the nationwide effort to get more funding for the program is the National Council of Agricultural Employers. Executive Committee member Michael Marsh told Lens that the recent funding cuts to the Department of Labor for H-2A “is unfortunate. They have to have adequate assets and resources in order to operate the program properly.”

Marsh added that the demand for guest workers in both Washington and the nation is being driven in part by low unemployment among domestic workers. Yet he says the funding issue isn’t the only challenge. It may be more and more difficult to import foreign labor in the future as those countries’ economies improve. On top of that, current regulations have it so that farmers “have to pay a wage that there’s probably no justification for,” Marsh said.

Under current policy, farmers must pay domestic workers and H-2A workers the same wage for the same job. This means Washington farmers who don’t use any foreign labor must often pay the same rate as farms that do in order to keep domestic workers. According to Tynan, H-2A workers in Washington state are paid 25 percent or more above the state minimum wage.

“We have to have a program with regulations that are associated with it that allow the U.S. family farms to stay viable and sustainable,” Marsh said. “If we don’t have them, it’s not a very short distance to continue to import more and more. If I can grow it cheaper in Canada and Mexico, it’s a business decision.”

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