CORRECTED: Washington growers embrace H-2A program

01/24/2014 01:10:00 PM
Tom Karst

CORRECTED Trying to eliminate some of the uncertainty in the labor market, more Northwest fruit growers are using guest agricultural workers supplied through the H-2A program.

According to an annual report by the Washington Farm Labor Association, Lacey, more than 6,000 foreign workers were certified to enter the state in 2013, an increase of nearly 50% compared with 2012. While it didn’t crack the top 10 among H-2A users a few years ago, the state now ranks fourth in terms of certified H-2A workers, according to the report.

With 56 grower applications from Washington filed in 2013, the report said double-digit growth is anticipated for several years.

The nonprofit Washington Farm Labor Association, a human resources provider for farmers in the Northwest, accounted for about 80% of all H-2A applications in Washington during 2013, according to Dan Fazio, director.

There is a concern over a tight domestic labor supply, he said.

“The farmers have decided they definitely need a legal and stable workforce,” Fazio said.

For most Washington growers using the program, guest foreign workers account for between 10% to 25% of their crews, Fazio said.

Mike Gempler, executive director of the Yakima-based Washington Growers League, said he would not be surprised if the number of H-2A workers in the state increases by another 500 to 1,000 workers in 2014.

“As Congress has tried but failed to pass immigration reform, people are pressed against the wall,” Gempler said.

Rather than an endorsement of its terms, the growth of the program reflects growers’ desperate need for risk reduction, Gempler said.

With the agricultural workforce of more than 100,000 in Washington — 50,000 are employed in the apple industry alone during harvest — guest workers account for less than 10% of the total labor pool, Gempler said. The Washington Growers League works with Lovingston, Va.-based Mas Labor to bring H-2A workers to the state, Gempler said.

About 60,000 workers were in the H-2A program last year, said Frank Gasperini, executive vice president of the Vienna, Va.-based National Council of Agricultural Employers.

Labor shortages of 30% to 40% several years ago motivated some growers into entering the program, he said.

“(Growers) have stable but high-demand business supplying people like Costco and international markets and you can’t afford a hiccup,” he said.

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