Despite shortages, farm labor is under attack again

Jan 21, 2019

Despite labor shortages, farm workers are under attack in Washington state … again.

H.B. 1398 and its companion S.B. 5438 have been proposed to increase the application fees associated with H-2A visas. If passed, the bills represent added costs and exacerbate an already difficult worker shortage for growers.

Reading into the meat of the bills, however, they are legislation to curtail, through prohibitive costs, the employment of H-2A workers in Washington state at a time when there is a farm-worker shortage.

In 2018, Washington state farm employers requested 24,658 H-2A visas, an increase of about 1,000 percent since 2007, according to the intent sections of the bills. Last year, the Employment Security Department (ESD) proposed the formation of the Office of H-2A Compliance and Farm Labor be created to employ 14 full-time staff members with funding coming from additional H-2A fees assessed to Washington state farm employers.

Originally, the proposed fee structure was $1,000 per H-2A employer application with an additional $100 per requested employee for the first 1,000 employees hired. After 1,000 employees, the fee would be assessed at $50 per employee.

The fees would be collected in addition to the federal fees Washington employers already pay to the tune of a $100 application fee plus $10 per employee up to $1,000 to the U.S. Department of Labor; $460 per petition fee as well as a $6 per worker border stamp fee to the Department of Homeland Security; and the $190 per employee fee to the State Department to screen each potential employee to ensure they are eligible to work in the United States and do not pose any national security concerns.

So a farmer who needs 25 employees for three months during a fruit harvest already pays $5,710 just to apply for the hiring of those needed employees. In addition to application fees, the cost of travel from a potential employees’ home to the U.S. Consulate and, eventually, to Washington state is also covered by the hiring farmer.

The current iteration of the legislation does not include a fee structure, instead noting that fees would be set annually to make up the difference between federal monies received by the ESD to administer the program on a state level and the actual cost of doing business. The legislative brief provided by the ESD notes that Washington state received an average of $300,000 to administer the H-2A program during the last five years. The proposed legislation does not outline the size of the current budget shortfall.

Beyond the application costs, there is no evidence the ESD needs to be investigating H-2A visa compliance. The H-2A visa program holds employers to a higher standard in terms of wages, housing, and transportation beyond the temporary immigration process.

According to wafla, employers using the H-2A visa program pay their employees approximately $15.03/hr. versus $12/hr. paid by other employers. Farmers seeking H-2A visa workers must also provide housing that is licensed and inspected by the Department of Health – which inspects the facilities twice a year – and is also inspected by the Department of Labor and Industries. All H-2A housing is also subject to surprise inspections by the Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division.

It is also important to remember the ESD is not an enforcement agency. The Department of Labor and Industries is tasked with enforcing wage laws, workplace safety standards, and inspecting farm worker housing.

H-2A visa holders also boost the economy of Washington state. In 2017, each worker provided a benefit of approximately $5,000. Looking at 2018 total hires, that is about $123.3 million contributed to the economy after funds were sent back to families abroad.

There is no shame in coming from another country on an H-2A visa in hopes of earning money for ones family with hard work. It is the modern expression of the American Dream. No matter where you come from or what you believe, the American Dream tells us if you are honest and work hard, America, the world, is your oyster. Workers, who arrive legally in this country with an H-2A visa in hand, have signed up to achieve the American Dream.

One final note, Washington state is the first state in the country to propose charging farmers to participate in the H-2A visa program. It is a precedent we don’t want to set. This proposed legislation is a step backward for Washington, making it more difficult to hire legal employees.