OLYMPIA — During a state House committee hearing Thursday, representatives of agricultural producers noted high retention rates for workers in the federal H-2A guest worker program, affirmation of their efforts to treat workers “like family.”
“We strive to build relationships with our workforce,” said Delia Pena, who works in the human resources department of Zirkle Fruit in Selah, which brings in thousands of workers through the program.
Michele Besso, a Yakima-based attorney for the Northwest Justice Project, painted a different picture. She said she’s heard from farmworkers who endured inadequate health care, management issues and harsh labor conditions in fear of losing their jobs.
“They know their only choice is to stick it out or quit and go to Mexico,” she said.
Turnout from both the state agricultural industry and the farmworker advocate community was strong for a hearing on the latest version of Senate Bill 5438, which would create a new office within the state Employment Security Department that would provide additional oversight of the federal guest worker program.
The bill passed the Senate on a mostly party-line vote and the legislation is now going through the House.
The use of the program has proliferated in recent years as agricultural producers struggle to find enough domestic workers to fill seasonal agricultural positions.
That prompted the state Employment Security Department — which projects upward of 30,000 workers will come to Washington state through the H-2A program this year — to request legislation to develop a new office that would allow the department to oversee the program better.
Under the bill, the office would process complaints and conduct checks and field visits as required by the U.S. Department of Labor. It also would offer training and outreach to employers.
Farmworker advocates have supported the bill, stating it provides much-needed oversight to prevent workers from being exploited.
The agriculture industry is firmly against the legislation, saying state and federal agencies already conduct audits and inspections of different aspects of the H-2A program, such as worker housing.
Growers opposed to the bill are most concerned about proposed fees that they say would make the costly program even less accessible.
An earlier version of the bill would have allowed Employment Security to charge an application fee and a personal employment fee.
The most recent version requires Employment Security to use other funds to pay for the new office. The agency can only implement fees later if federal funding does not cover the cost of operating the new office. The bill also limits the amount the agency can charge agricultural producers.
In Thursday’s hearing, agricultural producers said they remain concerned about any language that provides Employment Security a means to charge new fees.
“No one else in any other state would have to pay this fee,” said Chafeka Abdellatif, who works in human resources for Kershaw Companies near Gleed and provides consulting services for other area growers. “For farmers, this is a direct competitive disadvantage.”
Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, a Goldendale Republican and a ranking member on the House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee, said she did not want producers to pay more when they already pay hundreds, even thousands, of dollars for every worker in the H-2A program.
As for farmworker safety, she noted that many of the workers are turning to community organizations because they don’t feel comfortable voicing those concerns through government channels. Mosbrucker said that she doesn’t see how adding a new government-run office would encourage more workers to express their concerns.
Still, she still feels that the bill in its current form is an improvement from the original bill, a reflection of an ongoing dialogue between legislators and stakeholders. She hopes further negotiation will produce legislation that works for the agriculture industry and farmworker advocates.
The House Labor and Workplace Standards committee is scheduled to discuss the bill in an executive session Tuesday.
“I think it’s a matter of learning as much we can and finding something that works for both sides,” Mosbrucker said.