Apples are Washington state's largest agricultural commodity with an estimated $2.4 billion produced in 2016. Photo courtesy of Washington State Department of Agriculture
YAKIMA, Wash., Aug. 30 (UPI) -- As fall harvest time approaches for Washington state's largest agricultural commodity -- apples -- growers are among the employers filing a record number of visa requests for foreign guest workers.
Applications have increased more than 1,000 percent in less than a decade in Washington state, where a growing agricultural industry is struggling to find the labor needed to harvest produce.
This year alone, Washington employers have filed applications requesting a combined 24,658 H-2A visas for foreign guest workers. The requests have grown by the thousands annually since 2009, according to the state Employment Security Department, when just 2,092 foreign worker visas were requested.
Changes in immigration enforcement and in the domestic workforce are driving the trend, said Craig Carroll, foreign labor programs manager for the state ESD, which acts as a conduit between employers and the U.S. Department of Labor. The huge numbers of workers that traveled the West for decades harvesting crops in different seasons have evaporated, opting to stay in one place or seek less physically intensive work in other industries.
"We're just not seeing the migration of workers we used to," Carroll said.
Some workers may get multiple visas and be double-counted in the total requested, he said, but he estimated that would apply only to about 2,000 workers.
The majority of farmworkers in Washington state have roots in Mexico. A study by the Pew Research Center in 2015 showed more Mexicans were leaving the United States than immigrating to the country between 2009 and 2014, when the United States saw a net loss of 140,000 Mexicans residing here.
Pew attributed the trend to the 2007 recession and stricter enforcement of U.S. immigration laws.
"It became more expensive and more dangerous to get across the U.S.-Mexico border, and it became riskier and more difficult to be in the United States," Washington Growers League executive director Mike Gempler said. "I've talked to people who work in the fields who just thought they didn't feel welcome here anymore. They know they won't make as much money in Mexico, but they'll be near family and have nowhere near the hassle."
The increase in need for foreign workers in Washington state is consistent with a national trend. The federal H-2A program topped more than 200,000 visa requests last year, a record.
"The labor market is tight," Washington State Tree Fruit Association spokesman Tim Kovis said. "A lot of people think picking is unskilled work. It's just a different skill, and you can make good money if you're talented at it."
Growers who sponsor foreign workers are still required to give jobs to U.S. citizens who apply for the same jobs, Kovis said. More often, much of the available domestic labor force isn't seeking out jobs in fruit picking, he said.
The need for tree fruit pickers is felt most in the fall, when Washington's apple harvest takes place from late August into November. Apples are the state's largest agricultural commodity with an estimated $2.4 billion produced in 2016, Washington State Department of Agriculture spokesman Chris McGann said.
Some growers complain the labor shortage leaves plenty more fruit unpicked to rot, or picked so late in the season that the fruit's value and quality have decreased. The state doesn't track estimated losses on unharvested crops, McGann said, so any reported losses would be purely anecdotal.
"It's not at a crisis," he said.
Gempler, whose organization provides labor and employment services for agricultural businesses, said the reliance on foreign worker visas has solidified in recent years. Although three-quarters of the state's seasonal agricultural workforce is still in the country, Gempler said the days of employers having their choice among people lined up looking for work outside the orchards are largely over.
"People used to wander in cars by the orchards looking for work all the time," Gempler said. "That's certainly not the case anymore."
Industry advocates remain concerned about federal policies impacting the future flow of labor into the country. The Trump administration has sent growers mixed signals on the H-2A visa program: promising to make the system less burdensome with regulations on employers, while at the same time signaling interest in capping the number of visas allowed under H-2A, which growers dread.
The visa application process involves several federal agencies, including the Department of Labor, U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services, and the Department of State. The enormous change in guest worker applications has far outpaced the resources in the federal government dedicated to processing and regulating them.
"They can't process things in a timely way," Gempler said. "The Trump administration says they want to make it better, which is good."
But the administration's generally restrictive approach to immigration -- legal and illegal -- has created uncertainty about visa limits on the H-2A program.
A bill to reform the guest worker program sponsored by U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., introduced in the House in 2017, would consolidate the H-2A program with other foreign guest worker visas and cap the annual number of new approvals at around 500,000. The Trump administration has signaled its support for the legislation.
Employers are required to secure housing for the foreign guest workers they sponsor, and the increase has some officials in rural Washington worried the jump in guest workers will put stress on local housing markets. Rather than put up temporary housing near the fields where they will work, more employers are looking to save time and money by buying up existing housing and extended- stay facilities in nearby municipalities.
In the central Washington, which produces apples, hops, wine grapes, cherries and more, a former hotel in Yakima was recently converted into the state's largest housing complex for farmworkers with room for up to 800 beds. In response to concerns from some residents and affordable housing advocates, the Yakima City Council placed a moratorium on such "extended stay" facilities, while city planners research ordinances to regulate them.
The facility was bought and renovated by Valicoff Fruit, which houses about 120 workers at the hotel, as well as hundreds more sponsored by other employers, owner Rob Valicoff said. Another 96 workers are also housed on Valicoff farm land in facilities built two years ago.
"It takes 14 months to build new housing and if you don't have it you can't apply for H-2A," Valicoff said. "This hotel saved our bacon. Otherwise, we would have been hurting pretty bad."
There are growers who have owned apartment complexes in local municipalities since 2006, when the guest worker program began to take off in Washington, Valicoff said, but hotel projects like his shouldn't be seen as a threat to the local housing stock. He said the answer to those concerns may lie in voters pushing for long-stalled immigration reform in Congress.
"The American consumer has to answer one question," Valicoff said. "Do you want foreign workers producing your food in America, or do you want food that's just foreign?"