Bipartisan legislation introduced to address seasonal farm labor shortages
This past fall, many orchardists throughout Central and Eastern Washington nearly lost their apple crops due to a shortage of fruit pickers. Several Republican and Democratic state lawmakers are hoping to avert the same crisis in the future through legislation they introduced Thursday in the Washington State House of Representatives.
“Agriculture is one of the biggest driving forces in the economy of the state of Washington. We felt there is some real need for labor reform that would make it easier for young people in schools and colleges, and others who are unemployed, to have an opportunity to earn a paycheck and get hands-on working experience during seasonal agricultural harvests,” said Rep. Norm Johnson, R-Yakima, the prime sponsor of House Bill 2408.
The measure would authorize the State Board of Education to grant waivers from the 180-day school year to school districts for a flexible calendar to accommodate participation for young people of working age to be employed in agricultural activities. It also specifies that nothing precludes school districts, institutions of higher education, and community and technical colleges from adopting a calendar that includes breaks “to accommodate participation in agricultural activities, including the harvesting of farm or nursery products and related activities.” It also would expand higher education work-study to include provisions to encourage job placement in agricultural activities.
“I was very happy to work with Representative Johnson on this bill. I grew up in a farming community and know the importance of moving quickly on harvest,” said Rep. Deb Eddy, D-Kirkland, co-sponsor of the bill. “Fruit harvests aren't important just to the growers, but to the entire community, the entire state.”
“Historically, it has not been unusual for school districts to adjust their schedules to accommodate seasonal agricultural work. When I was a kid, it happened frequently that schools in Central Washington would close for a week or so during the harvest, and afterward, they would pick back up,” added Johnson, a former school principal and teacher. “It didn't detract from their 180-day requirement. It was just re-adjusting the schedule to allow for the harvest. That's what this bill would encourage again.”
Co-sponsor Rep. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, noted seasonal worker shortages have not only been experienced in the apple industry, but also with harvesting of berries and reforesting of public lands, all which require hand labor.
“This bipartisan legislation is an outside-of-the-box approach to give our agriculture industry more options when it comes to harvest. The goal is to ensure that we don't repeat the shortage of labor we experienced in the fall of 2011,” said Rivers. “While it would appear to benefit certain regions of the state, it's good for all of Washington. Agriculture is a vital, export-based industry for our state – one that employs around 160,000 Washingtonians. We should always be looking at ways to strengthen our economy and improve our business climate.”
The measure also specifies that employment services provided by the Employment Security Department include recruitment, screening and referral of refugees and asylum seekers to agriculture-related work. Plus, it would set aside 10 percent of money previously appropriated through the state's Rural Mobility Grant Program to provide enhanced transit opportunities for farm workers through vanpools and other programs. The bill would also temporarily prevent the Department of Health from raising fees related to regulation and inspection of farm worker housing.
“If jobs are available, we need to put people to work. These kinds of jobs, however, are seasonal, so it can be more challenging to fill them at the time workers are needed. These industries are too important to our economy to ignore, so that's why I believe this legislation will help to open new opportunities for both farm employers and new workers, and avert the labor shortages that have threatened seasonal harvests,” said Johnson.
The measure has been referred to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.
John Sattgast, Senior Information Officer/Broadcast Coordinator – (360) 786-7257 (For Rep. Norm Johnson)
John Handy, Republican Deputy Communications Director – (360) 786-5758 (For Rep. Ann Rivers)
Gregory Roberts, Communications Specialist – (360) 786-7631 (For Rep. Deb Eddy)
###Washington State House Republican Communications