If new rules set to be imposed by the state of Washington are implemented on May 1, about 15,000 seasonal farm workers would be prevented from harvesting crops. Washington leads in apple production and is the largest employer of seasonal farm workers. About half of the states 16 billion apples would go unharvested along with about one third of the nation’s supply of frozen and processed raspberries.
“It’s not just the impact on this harvest that would be devastating,” said Dan Fazio, president of the leading farm labor supplier, wafla. “Most fruit growers, especially smaller family farms, couldn’t survive this kind of loss.”
Jon Maberry is a fourth generation berry farmer and president of the Washington Red Raspberry commission. “In this small area we grow about 75% of the nation’s frozen and processed raspberries and we are major growers of blueberries,” Maberry said. “Take half our seasonal workers away and we’ll not only lose our harvest but we will lose many if not most of our farms. These fields can’t be left uncared for and survive. I don’t see how we can recover if this happens.”
The draft guidelines place severe restrictions on temporary farm worker housing including eliminating the use of bunk beds. Seasonal workers particularly guest workers under the H-2A visa program rely on free government inspected housing as mandated by federal law. The restrictions would make it impossible to house up to half of Washington state’s seasonal workforce. Almost 75% of the state’s 22,000 guest workers now arriving or about to arrive are employed in the state’s apple harvest.
“Farmers and farm workers have been following state guidelines and going above them in many cases,” said Gerald Baron, executive director of Save Family Farming, a state farm advocacy group. “They are proactively testing and have arranged for quarantine facilities in addition to adhering to protective equipment, distancing, etc. There is no justification for this. Will the state next go into the homes of healthcare workers, police, and military personnel to ensure that no bunk beds are used or that these workers sleep at least six feet apart? Why are these restrictions focused on farm workers alone?”
“We don’t understand how the state can essentially stop a federal program,” Baron commented. “It may be tested in court but by that time it will be too late for the harvest which is beginning now, and the incomes of these valuable workers.”
About 15,000 jobs, including thousands of both domestic and guest worker jobs, would be lost under the guidelines, Dan Fazio predicts. “Many of the guest workers depend on these seasonal jobs to support their families. This year the minimum wage is $15.83 per hour in this state in addition to free transportation, housing and other mandates. Minimum wage in Mexico where most of them come from is 79 cents per hour. It’s a tragedy that while our federal leaders are expanding guest workers access for farmers to help provide our nation’s food supply, our state is taking the opposite direction and causing massive job and food losses without justification.”