Washington farmers rally against new H-2A fee

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CAPITAL PRESS – DON JENKINS – OLYMPIA — Washington farmers are pushing back against a proposal by the state Employment Security Department to collect new fees from growers and hire 14 new employees to beef up state oversight of the federal H-2A worker program.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s two-year budget proposal allocates $4.1 million for a new Office of H-2A Compliance and Farm Labor. The office would be advised by an eight-member committee split between representatives of farm groups and farmworker groups.

The employment department says it needs the money to meet its obligations to help federal agencies monitor compliance with the rules for employing foreign farmworkers. Growers say the fees would be onerous and question why the department also wants to set up a new advisory committee that could include critics of the program.

“I can’t see why a federal program would need a state advisory committee to talk about its implementation,” Ephrata, Wash., beekeeper Tim Hiatt, who hires H-2A workers, told the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee.

House Bill 1398, sponsored by Democrats, stems from a gap in what the employment department receives from the federal government and what it says it needs to conduct wage surveys, verify a shortage of domestic workers, and help federal authorities check on working and living conditions.

The department receives about $300,000 a year, but that hasn’t kept up as farmers hire more foreign workers, department legislative director Nick Streuli said. The department estimates about 30,000 H-2A workers will be brought to Washington this year.

The department earlier proposed charging growers $1,000 to apply for workers, plus $100 for each of the first 1,000 workers. After that, the fee would have dropped to $50 per worker. That fee schedule has since been scrapped. The bill calls for the advisory committee to recommend fees.

Streuli told legislators that the department has lobbied and will continue to lobby for more federal funding. “Given the dramatic rise in the use of the program, we don’t feel we can continue to wait for congressional action,” he said.

Washington State Tree Fruit Association President Jon DeVaney agreed the federal government should send the state more money, but asked legislators not to impose a state fee to run a federal program.

“We don’t think that just the growers in Washington state should bear the cost of the federal government not meeting its enforcement responsibility,” he said.

The bill is about more than a funding gap.

The new committee would be charged with advising the employment department on the H-2A program and recommending “changes to state law that would lead to increased recruitment and hiring of domestic workers.”

Ramon Torres, president of the Washington farmworker union Familias Unidas por la Justicia, told lawmakers through a translator that his union wants to be on the committee.

“We have been worried for years about how this program has been growing and displacing local workers,” he said. “As an independent union, we would like to be part of the advisory committee that is going to make recommendations.”

Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of Community to Community Development, said her group, whose stated goals include ending capitalism, should be on the committee, too.

“Support of this bill doesn’t mean we’re supporting the (H-2A) program. It means we’re desperate to protect farmworkers’ lives, both domestic and foreign, that are working in our state,” she said.

Several farmers told the committee they can’t find enough domestic workers and desperately need foreign workers, even though the program increases their costs. The H-2A program mandates a higher minimum wage than the state, and requires farms to house workers.

“You treat your people really well, or you don’t have employees,” Royal City orchardist Rich Callahan said. “We’re not displacing local workers. We can’t find locals.”

Posted by: Don Jenkins, Capital Press, January 29, 2019

Picture: Don Jenkins – Capital Press

H-2A foreign guestworkers work at Griggs Orchards, Orondo, Wash. A state agency wants to increase staffing and funding to monitor the federal program.