Wash­ing­ton state of­fi­cials teach farm­ers about fed­eral guest worker pro­gram

H-2A pro­gram an al­ter­na­tive to il­le­gal im­mi­grant la­bor

The Covington News - - Agriculture & Outdoors - By Shan­non Dininny

YAKIMA, Wash. — In 2006, just 12 Wash­ing­ton state farm­ers sought to bring in for­eign work­ers to pick fruits and veg­eta­bles and prune trees un­der a fed­eral guest worker pro­gram. A year later, that fig­ure more than dou­bled.

And al­ready in 2008, eight farm­ers have ap­plied to bring in for­eign work­ers this com­ing sea­son.

To meet that grow­ing de­mand and en­sure that farm­ers know what’s re­quired of them, the state held its first train­ing sem­i­nar Thurs­day to teach farm­ers about the fed­eral H-2A guest worker pro­gram. Call it H-2A 101. “We’re ex­pect­ing an in­crease in the num­ber of grow­ers want­ing to use H-2A again, and that is one of the rea­sons we’re putting on this train­ing,” said Os­car Trevino, pro­gram co­or­di­na­tor for the H-2A pro­gram with the state Em­ploy­ment Se­cu­rity De­part­ment.

“We need to help em­ploy­ers who are in­ter­ested in the pro­gram or who have used the pro­gram to bet­ter un­der­stand the rules, laws and reg­u­la­tions — and their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties when they file an ap­pli­ca­tion,” Trevino said.

Wash­ing­ton is far from the only state fac­ing la­bor short­ages in the fields, forc­ing many farm­ers to look out­side the United States for le­gal work­ers. In 2004, some 6,768 farm­ers across the coun­try were cer­ti­fied to bring in for­eign work­ers, but that num­ber grew to 7,740 last year.

Un­der the H-2A pro­gram, farm­ers may ap­ply to bring in for­eign work­ers if they can show the sup­ply of U.S. work­ers is in­ad­e­quate.

In 2007, more than 76,000 for­eign work­ers came to the U.S. un­der the H-2A pro­gram to work in agri­cul­ture, though just 1,240 of them were in Wash­ing­ton. They com­prise just a sliver of the es­ti­mated 860,000 peo­ple work­ing full time in agri­cul­tural fields na­tion­wide, ac­cord­ing to re­cent U.S. De­part­ment of La­bor sta­tis­tics.

The La­bor De­part­ment es­ti­mates that more than half of that num­ber are in the coun­try il­le­gally.

Ex­pect more Wash­ing­ton grow­ers to ap­ply for the fed­eral guest worker pro­gram if im­mi­gra­tion re­form stalls in Congress as ex­pected this elec­tion year, said Mike Gem­pler of the Wash­ing­ton Grow­ers League.

“More and more grow­ers are do­ing what they can to pre­pare to use the H-2A pro­gram,” Gem­pler said. “That means be­com­ing knowl­edge­able about it and mak­ing prepa­ra­tions to be able to use it, whether it’s hav­ing hous­ing avail­able or mak­ing con­tacts and get­ting them­selves ready or­ga­ni­za­tion­ally to han­dle that sort of sys­tem.”

The bot­tom line is that many farm­ers feel they have no choice, he said.

“There’s a lot of con­cern, not just or­chardists and more la­bor-in­ten­sive crops, but row crop farm­ers as well,” he said. “Peo­ple in pro­cess­ing and pack­ing, as­so­ci­ated in­dus­tries, are all look­ing at their abil­ity to at­tract an ad­e­quate num­ber of le­gal em­ploy­ees. Bona fide le­gal em­ploy­ees.”

The Ap­ple State does grow some highly la­bor-in­ten­sive crops: Fruit trees re­quire hand prun­ing and thin­ning, and the many va­ri­eties of ap­ples, pears, peaches and cher­ries are se­lec­tively picked by hand for ripeness and to avoid bruis­ing.

Some of Wash­ing­ton’s row crops, such as as­para­gus, also have tra­di­tion­ally re­quired hand la­bor.

Geb­bers Farms, the third-largest ap­ple grower in the coun­try, was send­ing six peo­ple to the train­ing sem­i­nar from the com­pany’s base in Brew­ster, a small agri­cul­tural town in northcen­tral Wash­ing­ton.

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