It’s nearly apple-picking time in Washington’s Yakima Valley. Cherry season will be around for a few more weeks, and a bounty of other fruits and vegetables are maturing on branches and in fields.
“The orchards are big and beautiful,” said Dan Fazio, executive director of the Washington Farm Labor Association. “The crop looks good.”
Just one problem: A shortage of workers to bring in the harvest.
It has been an issue in Washington and other farm states for several years because fewer U.S. workers want to take agricultural jobs. The primary reason is that farm work is seasonal. For Washington’s iconic crops — apples, cherries and pears — the work lasts less than six months. Construction jobs, on the other hand, generally last longer and pay more.
“If we had 12 months of work, we would have more Americans wanting this job,” said Fazio, whose group provides housing and other services for agricultural and other seasonal workers.
Many farmers have had to rely on undocumented workers. Perhaps as much as 60-70 percent of the laborers working on farms and ranches across the country might not have the proper documentation, according to Charles Connor, president of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and a former deputy secretary of Agriculture.
But a crackdown on the border controls and an increase in deportations under both the Obama and Trump administrations have cut the labor pool further. Some farmers have responded by moving their operations to Mexico, where the workers are. But that’s not an option for most. Others may opt to replace workers with machines.
“This is a need all farmers have, whether for tree fruit, berries or dairy,” said Scott Dilly, a spokesman and lobbyist for the Washington State Dairy Federation. “They’re all looking into mechanical harvesting, robotic milkers — any kind of labor-saving device. That’s where they see things going as it gets harder to find labor.”
Meanwhile, the federal government’s guest worker program, which permits employers to import labor on a temporary basis if they can demonstrate that Americans don’t want the jobs, is too expensive for some growers and useless for dairy farmers. That’s because the program — known as H-2A visas — is designed for seasonal growth cycles and shorter stays. The visas are for 10 months or less.
“That just doesn’t work for milking cows,” said Dilly, whose industry would like to see H-2A visas extended to three years. “We can’t just use the seasonal workers. We need people who get to know the animals they care for. We need people who can be here long term.”
Washington ranks third, behind Georgia and Florida, for the most number of temporary agricultural visas given to foreign guest workers approved by the Labor Department during the first three quarters of fiscal year 2018. California was fifth.
Growers who require seasonal labor have to jump through several hoops to be able to take advantage of the guest worker program. Among meeting other requirements, they have to agree to supply workers with housing, subject to state inspection.
“The issue is that H-2A is difficult to access for lack of available housing ... especially in expensive real estate markets in California,” said Jason Resnick, vice president and general counsel for the Western Growers Association, a family farm advocacy group. “It’s difficult to find affordable housing.”
He said giving H-2A workers housing allowances instead of putting the onus on farmers to provide accommodations could make it easier to find affordable places to live.
Farmers using H-2A also must provide the workers with transportation, and pay the prevailing wage, which for Washington’s H-2A workers is $14.12 per hour. The state’s minimum wage is $11.50 per hour.
But labor costs also can add up for farmers who don’t use H-2A, as competition for workers can be fierce.
“They’ve got a crop out there, and they’re paying someone $20 an hour to pick it, but that person is talking to three different farmers, and another farmer says, ‘I need to get this crop out for $21,’ then it’s $22,” Fazio said. “At some point, there’s going to be a farmer who’s going to pay more to pick the crop than he gets for his crop.”
Fazio said Washington needs about 100,000 seasonal workers for the period that began in mid-May and ends in mid-October. The state has received requests for more than 25,000 H-2A guest worker visas. But the number of domestic workers — a combination of both documented and undocumented workers, plus residents of the state — could fall short of filling the need.
Farmers are also afraid of losing overseas markets as a result of the trade war President Donald Trump triggered with countries that purchase a lot of U.S. commodities. Importers have to pay a higher tariff on American goods. But a revolt over the tariffs is brewing among lawmakers on both sides of aisle, particularly those from farm states.
At a speech in Kansas City on July 24, Trump urged farmers to “be a little patient” and said they will end up being “the biggest beneficiaries” of the trade war. But that’s little comfort for farmers who could face having to leave crops in the field because their markets have shrunk.
Washington is the third largest exporter of food and agricultural goods in the country; among them fruits, vegetables, wheat and seafood.
In addition, immigration legislation is stalled on Capitol Hill because of a deep, largely partisan divide over granting legal status and citizenship to some people who have been in this country for years. The House failed to pass a bill last month and left July 26 for its August recess. Lawmakers won’t return until early September. Awaiting them is a proposal dropped from the June legislation and supported by Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., that would permit three-year visas for guest workers, with the caveat that they return home for 60 days some time during that period.
Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, an advocacy group for migrant and seasonal farmworkers, said if the reason behind the H-2A program is to account for the lack of U.S. citizens who will take agricultural jobs because of the pay, employers should increase the pay. “If we need workers in this country, why should we bring them in?” he said.
If the guest worker program is extended, those workers should be eligible for immigration status, Goldstein said, because otherwise they have few rights despite the possibility of working in the U.S. for a longer period of time.
Crackdowns on undocumented immigrants put many farmers in a bind. An estimated 1.2 million undocumented farmworkers are in the U.S. “If you remove those people from farms and ranches, crops go unharvested and animals go uncared for,” said Connor, the former deputy secretary of Agriculture. “Politicians are trying not to think about this, but they need to think that this is fundamental to our agricultural production. We need these current workers.”
Austin Allred, a 28-year-old dairy farmer who raises 5,500 head of Jersey and Holstein cattle near Royal City, Wash., said there needs to be a solution that allows immigrant farm workers to qualify for citizenship or legal status.
“It’s very, very difficult to find legal immigrants who want to do the type of work that we have to be done because it’s just not very much fun,” he said. And “people who are born and raised in America don’t want to do this.”
The labor shortage is exacerbated by a national unemployment rate of just 4 percent — 4.7 percent in Washington.
What seems likely is that any changes to address the concerns of growers and dairy farmers about labor shortages and the guest worker program in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the country likely will have to come from the Trump administration.
The Departments of Labor, State and Homeland Security — the three federal agencies that handle the visas — as well as Agriculture issued a joint statement in May announcing plans “to modernize the H-2A visa program by clarifying and improving the regulations.” They hope to have new rules finalized by 2020.
“The current H-2A is cumbersome, convoluted and does not work for many producers,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told USDA’s annual Agricultural Outlook Forum in February.
The number of H-2A applications certified by the Labor Department — those submitted by employers who had met all the requirements — has more than doubled since 2006, according to department data. In 2017, nearly 200,000 workers were certified with H-2A visas.
Representatives of the construction industry in Washington, which hires temporary guest workers through the Labor Department’s companion H-2B visa program for non-agricultural workers, said they have not experienced the kinds of problems that nettle farmers.
“We’ve had hard times over the past 10 years finding enough workers,” said Dilly, of the state dairy federation. “More growers are relying on the H-2A program to bring in workers from other countries because we can’t find workers here.”
David Goldstein: 202-383-6105, @GoldsteinDavidJ