Reform with no guest workers could cost growers 70 percent of workforce

By:  Wenatchee World - Christine Pratt
Source: Wenatchee World

Tighter border security without a provision for an agile, workable guest worker program could result in a 70 percent decline in the seasonal labor force for the region’s orchardists.

That’s the figure that worries the local tree fruit industry, as a bill for comprehensive immigration reform cleared the U.S. Senate last week and now enters a tougher fight in the House of Representatives.

U.S. senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and immigrant advocates last week hailed the Senate passage of the bipartisan Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, which includes provisions favored by Republicans to toughen border security and create a mandatory system to verify job applicant’s migratory status.

It would also create an agile visa and contract-labor program for ag workers and path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. — issues important to democrats.

And that’s all good, local industry officials say. If it all comes together as hoped.

“If we get immigration reform, it wouldn’t matter how tight the borders are, because there would be an effective guest worker program,” West Mathison, president of Stemilt Growers, said Tuesday of the proposed federal legislation. “We believe that for seasonal work needs, the majority of work would be done by guest workers. That’s part of why I truly think this is comprehensive and that they are truly looking at all aspects. I don’t have a fear it would jeopardize future workforce needs.”

But congressional vetting often produces laws that are not as originally conceived. Tighter security without guest-worker assurance could decimate the current labor force. But, by how much?

“That’s the wild card in all of this and the thing that concerns the tree-fruit industry,” said Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearinghouse, an orchardists trade group. “Tree fruit is very, very labor intensive and is the largest employer of seasonal agricultural workers in the state.”

Mayer said that some federal and state reports have estimated that as much of 70 percent of the total seasonal workforce is made up of undocumented workers. That would amount to about 50,000 fewer workers to pick the state’s cherries, apples and pears.

“The tree fruit industry recognizes that part of the reform package has to improve border security and document verification,” Mayer said. “The legislation looks good on the surface, but there are always discussions going on.”

The association hasn’t taken a position on the current reform bill, but Mayer said they’ll support an immigration law that legalizes experienced farm workers who have been in the country and provides an ag-worker visa and contract programs that allow at-will, eager laborers to come here, work for the season and go back to their home countries when the work is finished.

The country’s current solution, the H2A contract-worker program, is complex, expensive and not agile enough to respond to the unpredictabilities of the ag business, Mayer said.

But for big fruit companies, including Wenatchee’s McDougall & Sons, it’s become the norm for seasonal orchard work.

Scott McDougall, the company’s orchard division manager, said 95 percent of the company’s seasonal workforce is on the job under H2A contracts. He said he would welcome the reform, but doesn’t expect it would change the way they do business very much.

“For us, even if they tighten border security, we’ll still be very heavily reliant on continuing the H2A,” he said. “We have less than 5 percent of workers who are domestic hires.”

He added, “It’s almost too costly for small growers to be a part of. I’m sympathetic to that... If you’re a farmer, and you depend on that labor force for your livelihood, that’s where your frustration is, regardless of the party.”

Replacing workers who don’t qualify for employment will be crucial.

“If the current, unauthorized workforce shrinks, there needs to be a flexible enough tool to let employers fill those voids,” Mayer said. “If you have a good visa program, it won’t be as attractive for the individuals to cross the border illegally. They’re only doing that because there is no viable visa program in place.”

State Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, isn’t involved in the federal immigration debate, but said she’s fielded angry phone calls from a few constituents who oppose reforms and legalization.

“I don’t look at this as a Republican or Democratic issue,” she said Tuesday. “It’s an issue long overdue in being resolved. You’ve got to have a reliable, legal, stable workforce. There has to be a legal way for people to come to this country and work and then go home... They come here for a better life and work. We have to deal with this issue.”

State Rep. Brad Hawkins declined to comment for this story. State Rep. Cary Condotta didn’t respond to a phone request for comment.