Published May 17, 2012
Asparagus growers in eastern Washington State are scrambling to find enough workers to cash in on their crop’s rising popularity without much success. “We have a labor shortage, pure and simple,” says Dan Fazio of the Washington Farm Labor Association.
Farmers are being forced to leave 10 percent of this year’s crop uncut, which is costing them, according to the state’s asparagus commissioner, a combined $200,000 a day. But one place growers are not looking for labor is the unemployment office -- even though the jobless rate in Franklin County, where most of the asparagus is grown, is 10.7 percent.
“I’m pretty confident that if the average unemployed citizen in Franklin County came out and cut asparagus, it would be an unmitigated disaster,” says Alan Schreiber. “It’s hard work and you’ve got to be productive.”
Growers say the answer is immigration reform that would allow people who are in the country illegally to stay and work toward legal status. But opponents of illegal immigration blame the farmers for their labor shortage, accusing them of relying for decades on a cheap, illegal workforce and refusing to pay a wage acceptable to native-born residents. “For some reason agribusiness seems to think they’re exempt from paying a living wage or from providing suitable conditions for workers,” says Eric Ruark of FAIR, Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform. “And they think that because they’ve been able to get away with it.”
Still others say state lawmakers are partially responsible for the farm worker labor shortage. Washington has among the country’s most generous unemployment benefits. Out-of-work people can receive up to $583 a week for 73 weeks. It’s an amount that covers, on average, 42.3 percent of the person’s weekly wage when employed. “The state has created a disincentive to work,” says Erin Shannon of the Washington Policy Center, “with our generous benefits, with the weekly maximum and the duration of benefits.”
Dan Fazio, who represents growers across the state, says farm owners have been trying to match the unemployed with jobs in the fields. “There’s over 2,000 ads under state employment listings for farm workers,” says Fazio, “the vast majority of those go unfilled.”
Yet employment officials argue agribusiness isn’t trying hard at all. Michelle Mann, who manages the Franklin County Work Source office, tells Fox News an asparagus grower who recently let 100 acres go uncut never advertised with her office.
Growers fear if they paid more for labor, they’d further lose market share to foreign competition in Peru and Mexico. The Washington crop, which ranks behind only California, is valued at $23 million. Last year imports from Peru and Mexico totaled $161 million and $146 million respectively.
“We’re competing in a global marketplace,” says Alan Schreiber. “We’re competing against Peru, where they pay $5 a day, and Mexico, where they pay $10 a day.”