Washington state officials teach farmers about federal guest worker program
H-2A program an alternative to illegal immigrant labor
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.