Trump administration sees support from farmers over push to cut labor costs

The apple harvest in Washington state is in full swing. The labor-intensive job is always stressful, but increasingly orchard owners are worried if they can afford to pick all the ripe fruit.

Rob Valicoff, the owner of Valicoff Fruit Company, which grows some 1,700 acres of apples, peaches, cherries, apricots and pears, has relied almost entirely on temporary foreign guest workers. Of his 220 employees this fall, 200 came from Mexico through the H-2A Visa program.

Valicoff said the program has been expensive and inflexible, yet he’s forced to use it because otherwise he would not have enough workers to harvest his fruit.

“It’s kind of scary,” Valicoff said, “because these farms got so large that the payrolls on any given week are huge.”

A record 250,000 H-2A Visa holders have been working this year on U.S. farms. The estimated 25,000 of them working in Washington state have been making at least $15.03 per hour, $3.03 above the state minimum wage. Additionally, farmers had to pay for their visas, provide housing and transport them from their homes to the farm and then back home when the season’s over.

Valicoff has calculated a cost of $1,500 per H-2A worker before he’s picked a single apple.

“At some point, enough has to be enough,” Valicoff said. “We may have to produce less because it requires so much labor.”

The Trump administration apparently has agreed. The Labor Department has proposed several significant changes to the H-2A program which would make it less expensive and more flexible for farmers. Currently, guest workers’ pay has been set as the average farm wage paid in a given state. The goal of the so-called adverse-effect wage would be not to undercut prevailing wages for farmworkers already in the U.S.

It’s a domestic workforce made up largely of illegal immigrants. According to the Labor Department, half of all farmworkers surveyed admitted they’re unauthorized to work in the U.S.  Some 29 percent said they’re U.S. citizens with another 21 percent claiming to be legal permanent residents.

Farmers have seen more extreme worker shortages in recent years. They’ve attributed it to tighter border security, an aging immigrant farmworker population and record-low unemployment. The H-2A program was designed in the 1980s to be a stop-gap measure, but farmers increasingly have been relying more on guest workers than farmworkers already in the U.S.

The Trump administration’s changes would be welcome to many of those farmers. Michael Marsh of the National Council of Agricultural Employers said half of the fruit and one-third of the fresh vegetables consumed by Americans have been grown outside the U.S. largely because of the rising cost of farm labor here.

“We can either import our workers or we can import our food,” Marsh said, “and being food dependent on a foreign country to me just doesn’t seem to fit our national security.”

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But, the United Farm Workers union has seen the rising farm wages as a good thing, a function of supply and demand. UFW has opposed the changes to the H-2A program saying they’ll pit farmworkers already in the U.S. against an endless supply of cheaper foreign guest labor.

“Any U.S. worker who’s not willing to accept this lower wage can be replaced by someone who’s making lower wages, through a government program, who has no rights,” UFW Political and Legislative Director Giev Kashkooli said.

Kashkooli said not only would farm wages drop, but the amount of substandard housing for guest workers would increase. One change would allow farmers to self-inspect guest worker housing the year after a third-party inspection is done.

“I don’t think most of us think that farmworkers in the United States are paid too much money,” Kashkooli said.

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Valicoff, who’s been busy trying to get his fruit boxed and to market, disagreed. He said he’d see more automation, more robotics and more acreage going unfarmed.

“I don’t think our industry can sustain what we’re doing as far as costs,” Valicoff lamented.