Hired help: Pandemic exacerbates ag labor shortage

The state of Washington is under pressure to enforce social distancing guidelines at farms and orchards, but farmers say they can’t find enough agricultural workers to hire, and social distancing requirements interfere with plans currently in place.

“We might force people into housing conditions that are less safe. If someone comes from another state, will they be camping in unauthorized campsites?” mused Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington Tree Fruit Association.

That’s a very real possibility, he said.

When workers can’t find beds, they sleep in their vehicles or camp along the river. And if the employer puts them up in a hotel, are they safer there than if they remained with the same cohort day and night? Won’t they have even greater exposure to the virus? DeVaney wondered.

Normally the state of Washington requires strict guidelines for worker safety, but offers several routes to compliance, DeVaney said.

Union advocates for farmworkers filed a lawsuit seeking safer working conditions as harvest seasons ramped up amid a pandemic.

DeVaney said he believes the plaintiffs are at least partially motivated by a desire to reduce the use of out-of-country visa workers.

“They do not believe there is a shortage of workers. They are basing some of their claims on assumptions about a replacement workforce that are not true,” he said.

If American growers can’t find enough employees, they can apply for farm laborers to come from other countries, usually Mexico, on short-term visas through the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program. These guest workers must receive a guaranteed wage and be provided free transportation and housing with central heating and cooling, plus other basic services.

“In Washington state we have a perennial labor shortage, which is where the H-2A applications always come in. We typically hire 20,000 statewide,” said Pam Lewison, agriculture research director for the Washington Policy Center. “It’s an extremely expensive process. It averages $1,500 per worker just to apply.”

And that doesn’t include their wage or other services provided. “But they’re absolutely critical,” she said.

They’re valued for their loyalty. While domestic workers can leave any time to work at an orchard paying more, the H-2A visa workers have a set wage and must stay for the duration of their contract, Lewison said.

Most domestic workers would rather arrange their own housing than live with the H-2A visa workers because it’s a communal setup, she said. And farmers are not property developers. They must supply housing and they’re not always set up for it. They can’t bear these costs, she said.

U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, helped draft a bill to revise the H-2A visa program and make it easier and more cost effective for growers. But, it’s been delayed, she said.

“Until we address some of the problems with the expenses and its cumbersome nature, we’re in a holding pattern,” Lewison said.

How many needed?

Forecasting the number of agricultural laborers farms will need in 2020 is impossible because so many factors are fluid, said Ajsa Suljic, regional labor economist with the Washington Employment Security Department. The first consideration is the size and quality of the crop, which can be at the mercy of the weather. Second, conditions at the border and presidential approval of H-2A visas can restrict the available workforce.

All parties involved would like to see a larger domestic workforce, but recruitment efforts have largely failed. Suljic said those in the sector believed they would see more applicants during the Great Recession from 2008-10, but they did not.

“We hope there will be more local interest, but previous experience was, it didn’t work,” she said.

Many consider agricultural work “hard labor” and do not apply. Those who did found it not to their liking, she said. Also, tree fruit is unforgiving to rookie hands that bruise the fruit or damage tree limbs. It takes practice to be a skilled and efficient picker.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” said Bre Elsey, associate director of government relations for the Washington Farm Bureau.

The Trump administration originally put restrictions on the H-2A program as part of a larger effort to curb immigration, then the pandemic hit. Some of the consulates closed. Then the Department of Homeland Security eased some restrictions, declaring agriculture a critical industry.

“So, there’s been a lot of changes recently,” Elsey said.

Washington is third in the nation for the number of H-2A visa workers requested for 2020, behind Florida and Georgia. That’s because berries, cherries, apples and pears are labor-intensive crops to harvest, she said.

The lawsuit to enforce social distancing in farmworker housing would undo all the adjustments the Department of Homeland Security made to ensure the nation’s food supply, Elsey said.

The state Department of Health released new emergency rules for temporary farmworker housing in mid-May to increase worker safety and reduce the spread of coronavirus.

They spell out several required steps to increase physical distancing, improve cleaning and sanitizing, including having employers provide workers with cloth face coverings and ensure physical distancing at housing sites, which includes all cooking, eating, bathing, washing, recreation and sleeping areas.

The rules also outline specific physical distancing requirements for beds and bunk beds. Beds must be at least six feet apart with occupants sleeping head to toe.

Farms also must frequently clean and disinfect surfaces in housing, and must identify and isolate workers with suspected or confirmed cases of Covid-19.

Facing new challenges

To expand the housing supply to give each visa worker a bed and follow social distancing rules, farmers run into new challenges.

Farmers are going beyond state mandates to curb the spread of Covid-19, Elsey said.

“No farm would be sloppy with safety right now because no farmer can afford the risk,” she said.

Crops are in crisis right now, Elsey said. Potato farmers in Grant County and zucchini farms everywhere are foregoing planting because they can’t risk not having laborers to harvest fields in the fall, she said. The contracts and guarantees that enabled farmers to shoulder huge costs in the planting phase are gone.

“Labor costs in Washington state are astronomically high. These are the decisions the growers are having to make right now,” Elsey said.

There are very few domestic workers left who are local, said Dan Fazio, executive director of the Washington Farm Labor Association. Even the ones who live in California and migrate north in early summer are dwindling. Washington agriculture needs about 60,000 workers annually.

This year about 22,000 H-2A visa workers were requested. Last year 16,000 were requested but only 12,000 came. One difficulty in reporting these numbers is the difference between agricultural jobs and workers, Fazio said. When visa workers come, they pick cherries in May, June and July, and then work in apple orchards August through October.

So the 22,000 workers who may come will do the work of about 30,000. That’s important because sometimes the number of visa workers coming is inflated for political rhetoric, he said.

To better secure the nation’s food supply, discussions are persistently underway on how to increase the number of domestic laborers. With rising minimum wage and workers expecting help with housing and transportation, plus basic needs like access to groceries and health care, costs continue to increase.

“Unless we do something about that, we’re going to lose our export market, which is one third of our markets,” Fazio said.

The lawsuit to enforce social distancing jeopardizes the 31,000 licensed, inspected farmworker beds available in Washington state, Fazio said.

One proposal he prefers is charging H-2A visa workers for their housing. That would level the playing field for domestic workers and lower the financial burden on growers. The expense of the H-2A visa program is why so many farmers nationwide hire workers living in the country illegally, Fazio said. Revising the program is good for domestic laborers and for the farmers. And since the visa workers are usually making 20 times their home wage, they would still accept the invitation were it to come with fewer perks, he said.

Aliya Alisheva, a Tri-City immigration attorney, said she agrees the expenses shouldered by growers right now are not sustainable, but she also pointed out the laborers are earning wages that put them at or below the poverty line.

“Although they have been deemed essential workers, farm and food workers do not currently receive hazard pay to reflect the risks they face with the onslaught of the coronavirus. As many workers are undocumented, they also are ineligible for health benefits and other important entitlements,” she said.

Alisheva worries that a more affordable H-2A visa program will enable growers to replace existing domestic workers with foreign workers. She also pointed out that problems with the visa program are a moot point this summer because Mexico has closed its visa processing offices due to Covid-19.

“Farmworkers need clear, specific, enforceable protections from COVID, and they needed them weeks ago, when we first started asking the governor for help,” said Andrea Schmitt, attorney and advocate from Columbia Legal Services in a written statement.

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