By The Herald Editorial Board
Snohomish County no longer has the share of agricultural output for the state it had throughout much of the 20th century; in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s last five-year census in 2017, county farms accounted for 2 percent of the state’s agricultural sales.
Still, more than 1,500 farms produced a total market value of $157 million of crops, milk, poultry, eggs and livestock on more than 63,000 acres in 2017. And about 20 percent of those county farms relied on hired farmworkers, either hiring domestically or employing foreign workers through a federal visa program.
But as the county’s demographics and employment opportunities have changed, with fewer working farm jobs and more moving to cities, much of the work — as labor intensive as ever — has remained; just with fewer who are interested in performing it.
That’s true for Snohomish County and the rest of the state, said Enrique Gastelum, chief executive for the Lacey-based Washington Farm Labor Association, a nonprofit that works with farms and farm laborers to meet their related needs.
Gastelum came to Everett earlier this week, speaking Tuesday at a meeting of the Everett Rotary, specifically about the federal H2A visa program that allows agricultural businesses to bring in foreign nationals on a temporary basis.
“We’ve been struggling in our state and nationally to fill this labor-intensive seasonal work,” Gastelum said. “And the program helps to fill that labor gap.”
The H2A visas allow foreign workers to come to the U.S. for up to 10 months at a time to work at seasonal agricultural jobs. In Washington state, the program is used to connect workers with farmers raising tree fruit, hops, wine grapes, berries, potatoes and other major commodities.
Before a farmer is allowed to hire someone through the visa program, that business has to actively recruit and advertise that job in the local area and across the state, online and in newspapers, Gastelum explained in a conversation with The Herald Editorial Board last week.
“Despite those efforts, we still don’t have the U.S. domestic workers coming in to fill jobs. No one is ready, willing and able to do that work here in Washington. In 2022, we had 33,000 available jobs and we had 11 U.S. workers apply for those jobs,” Gastelum said.
He didn’t misspeak there.
“The state Employment Security Department sent 11 U.S. domestic referrals to help fill those 33,000-plus jobs,” he said. Nationally, he expects the H2A visa program to fill some 350,000 jobs this year.
WaFLA, a nonprofit in operation since 2007, serves a dual purpose in helping the agricultural industry navigate the visa process as well as state and federal rules. It also works in the interests of laborers to ensure good working conditions.
Workers in the visa program are guaranteed a minimum wage, currently $17.97 an hour in Washington state. Additionally, farmers are required to provide housing at no charge to the workers.
The association’s staff also offers bilingual staff, many from farmworker backgrounds themselves, including Gastelum, who continue working with the farmworkers after they are hired to make sure they have access to community resources, health care, social activities and even financial advice.
At the same time, the association also advocates for the farmers and the larger agricultural industry at a time when the financial and generational impacts on farming are increasing, Gastelum said.
The work being provided is difficult and demanding, but workers are getting a fair wage, he said, and the association would like to see reforms that would ease the financial pressure on farmers, particularly the requirement to provide housing at no charge and a recent fee increase to participate in the program. It can cost up to $20,000 to provide housing for each worker, Gastelum said. Multiply that by 10 to 20 workers, and the costs add up.
It’s important to keep the program affordable for farmers so they have the workforce they need and can continue hiring those who are legally eligible to work in the U.S.
Gastelum, who has worked with WaFLA for about a year now, said his speech to the Everett Rotary was among the first such addresses outside of the state’s more agriculturally centered communities. It’s the start of a broader public education campaign.
“People just don’t know that this program even exists. They don’t know about the labor shortage. You know, when I throw out we brought 33,000 workers into the state to help fill a labor need, their eyes are opened up,” he said.
Gastelum said he and others with the association are working to dispel myths about the visa program and the real need to hire workers from outside the U.S.
The son of migrant farm workers who came to the U.S. on visas, Gastelum said his father worked for 28 years as a farmworker, and it’s where he worked, too, at first.
“I’m no longer a farmworker because I lived the American dream. My dad took me out of the field and I was given the opportunity to go to university and now I’m heading a major ag association here in the Northwest. … I’m really leveraging my own personal farmworker history background as the leader of this association,” he said.
The labor shortage that is seen throughout agriculture in Washington state and the nation as a whole is similar to shortages of workers in other industries and professional fields, including construction, nursing, health care, child care and hospitality. All are industries that are going wanting for workers, and even federal visa programs are struggling to provide an adequate workforce.
Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell, in a column in Wednesday’s Herald, wrote that the nation’s perception of immigration is backward; that immigration actually offers solutions to the nation’s conundrums with inflation, worker shortages and the larger economy.
Yet Congress and the Biden administration — cowed by the politics and optics of the border crisis — are largely absent from a discussion of reforms that would address illegal immigration by improving the process for legal immigration.
More immediately, Congress and state lawmakers and officials can look to fixes to the visa programs and their requirements that are at least addressing some of the labor need.
“I’m of the opinion that if we could remove some of the bureaucracy and the red tape around this H2A program, maybe we could help alleviate some (pressure) of people who are making treks up through Central America and Mexico to the border seeking asylum,” Gastelum said.
The alternative — if we can find only 11 domestic workers for 33,000 agricultural jobs in the state each year — is to leave the food to rot in the fields.
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