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Why Washington’s farmworkers are disappearing

37 percent decrease in migrant farm labor over 5 years reported

By Alison Saldanha, The Seattle Times
Published: March 30, 2024, 6:04am
4 Photos
Farmworkers pick daffodils March 15 in a field just off Best Road in Skagit County near Mount Vernon.
Farmworkers pick daffodils March 15 in a field just off Best Road in Skagit County near Mount Vernon. Photo Gallery

SKAGIT COUNTY — While there’s plenty of work to be done in Washington’s fields, orchards and berry rows, farmworkers are becoming increasingly rare in the Evergreen State.

From 2017 to 2022, total hired farm labor in the state dropped 23 percent, dipping at more than twice the national rate, with the greatest contraction recorded among U.S.-based migrant workers who for decades have followed the harvests up the West Coast, according to a Seattle Times analysis of recently released agricultural census data.

Defined as farmworkers who cannot travel home the same day, migrant farm labor in Washington saw a 37 percent decrease over five years, falling to about 35,000 workers in 2022. Nationally, their numbers dropped 14 percent.

In the same period, though, the number of farmworkers employed through the H-2A guest worker program, which allows employers to bring in foreign workers to fill temporary agricultural jobs, has nearly doubled in Washington, data from the state Employment Security Department shows. These contrasting trends imply that the drop has more to do with fewer U.S. workers moving across state and county lines to “follow the season” for work in Washington.

State labor economists and H-2A employment agencies alike attribute their ebb and the growing popularity of the H-2A program to domestic farmworkers aging out of the workforce and finding less strenuous jobs elsewhere, and a dwindling interest in farm work.

Farmworker unions and advocates, however, contend that the profits growers earn on the H-2A program are suppressing wages for domestic workers and pushing them out of work on Washington farms.

For 14 years, Tomás Ramón, 39, has been tilling farms in Western Washington. Through summer and fall, he harvests an assortment of Washington-grown berries. In the dead of winter he prunes their bushes, shrubs and trees. In spring, he trudges through mushy fields in the Skagit Valley, picking daffodils and tulips.

Together, Ramón and farmworker Octavia Santiágo, 31, earn $30,000 to $35,000 a year to support themselves and their three children, ages 12, 8 and 4. They dream big for their children’s futures, envisioning them as lawyers and educators fighting for people’s rights.

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Ramón said working conditions on farms have improved with mandatory lunch breaks and overtime pay, thanks to a contract struck by their union, Familias Unidas Por La Justicia, in which he serves as vice president. However the income gains were short-lived as inflation skyrocketed and number of H-2A guest workers guest workers ballooned.

Employers are supposed to only import H-2A labor when domestic workers cannot be found, and are required to pay the guest workers competitive rates. But Ramón and others argue H-2A workers are now crowding out workers already in the U.S. while undercutting U.S. workers on pay.

“With rent and the price of everything going up, we cannot save for the offseason or for emergencies,” he said. “And nowadays, farmers are bringing in more H-2A guest workers and that is a big part of why local workers are losing hours and earnings.”

Things are more precarious now, Santiágo said, speaking from a resource center for farmworkers run by Community to Community Development, a food sovereignty and immigration rights advocacy organization known as C2C, in Mount Vernon. For instance, if workers have to pick up their kids from school or if anyone at home is sick, they have to think hard before leaving work. They could either lose contracts the next season or be let go early as the harvest season tapers off.

Since H-2A workers are brought in without families, they don’t have the same needs as domestic workers. Employers take advantage of this distinction to hire more H-2A workers, farmworker advocates say.

Santiágo emphasized this is not a fight between domestic and guest workers. “We are all workers, and so this is not us versus them — we know it is the companies pushing us out,” she said.

Santiágo has considered leaving agricultural work, and once applied for a position at a day care center. Without the right certifications, she couldn’t get a job.

“There’s a lot you don’t have access to without the right documents,” Santiágo said.

Scott Dilley, public affairs director for Wafla, the largest H-2A employment agency in Washington, explained the H-2A program is meant to meet the needs of a labor-intensive industry that has changed significantly in the last two decades.

Decades ago, it was easy for farmers to post signs during harvest season and find labor. “That cycle of migration has really diminished as more workers are choosing to live in their communities rather than move around to follow the season for work,” Dilley said. “And if you can’t find workers, then you don’t have a commodity to sell, so you have to get workers from somewhere.”

He pointed to the shrinking agriculture industry in Washington and highlighted the challenges that local farmers face competing in an international open market.

“With so many other changes like overtime for farmworkers, how can farmers compete in this really international marketplace?” Dilley said. “That’s the big question, especially as costs continue to go up.”

The H-2A program pays international guest workers what is called an adverse-effect wage, which is higher than the minimum wage, Dilley noted, arguing that the higher-than-mandatory wages have boosted pay for all farmworkers. Non-H-2A workers are also benefiting from a higher hourly wage rate for not just harvest time, he said, but the entirety of the season.

Critics of the H-2A program contend the pay rates reported by employers in the program don’t align with what workers actually see on their paychecks.

“The wage data provided by H-2A employers is not real,” said Rosalinda Guillen, a longtime farmworker justice leader and executive director of C2C. Guillen is a member of the state Agricultural and Seasonal Workforce Services Advisory Committee.

Surveys on prevailing wages that underpin H-2A pay rates are carried out with employers and some employees. “But you’re only getting a response from the employers, who say whatever they want,” she said, adding that since the wages of H-2A workers and domestic workers are linked, wages for both end up suppressed.

Guillen contends the shortage of domestic labor is a myth created by employers so they can hire H-2A labor. Migrant workers coming into Washington are now finding the farms they worked on in previous seasons hiring H-2A workers instead.

“These workers are poor and cannot afford to spend their precious dollars traveling all the way up here to find no work,” Guillen said.

She emphasized the need for accountability from the U.S. Department of Labor to ensure that domestic workers are not being displaced by the H-2A worker program “before it gets so bad that all the agricultural work in Washington state is done by H-2A workers displacing thousands of families.”

It is not the H-2A workers’ fault, she said. It is the growers and employers that contract them. “They just don’t want workers to be independent.”

Domestic workers are able to form unions, protect their rights and raise their wages, Guillen said. “Guest workers are at the mercy of their employers who hold their visas and control every aspect of their lives in the U.S.”

On March 7, the Washington Legislature passed a measure to collect more data on the employment of H-2A guest workers and their living arrangements, and to carry out annual wage surveys of farmworkers employed for the harvests.

Caitlyn Jekel, the Employment Security Department’s government relations director, has started work implementing the bill, which will go into effect in June. The first survey cycle will start sometime during the 2025 fiscal year, which begins in July.

“The bill is a recognition that we exist and are worth listening to,” Guillen said. “It’s like you’re dignifying us by actually establishing a data collection system that’s equitable, and recognizing that we’re worth collecting the data from.”

“We want to participate in the survey,” said Ramón, who wants the government to know he would like access to health care coverage and unemployment benefits in the offseason.

“All we are asking for is access to basic resources and for our voices to be heard,” Santiágo said. “We pay taxes, we do essential work, without us there is no food.”

Behind the couple, on the walls of the C2C resource center in Mount Vernon, hung colorful posters with slogans for farmworker rights. Delicate origami butterflies dangled overhead from the ceiling. The immigrant community in Northwestern Washington strung 10,000 of these winged paper creations in Bellingham City Hall last summer as a visual demonstration of their fight for immigration rights and a community resource center in the city.

Ramón has been a farmworker since he was 8. He relishes the fresh air of open fields, the sounds of nature and the feel of the earth under his fingertips.

“I don’t want to do anything else,” he said.

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