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Guest Editorial

Labor scarce, growers need help

BY SEN. JIM HONEYFORD

A television commercial currently airing in Eastern Washington highlights the critical shortage of legal farm-skilled workers in our state, particularly the Yakima Valley.

In the face of this shortage, government agencies in Washington have been less than cooperative with private companies attempting to navigate the sometimes bizarre government regulations, which for the agricultural labor program in question can involve oversight by as many as a dozen federal and state agencies and their departments.

Here's an example. Before using the only program that guarantees legal foreign guestworkers, a company must certify that there is an insufficient supply of available domestic workers. This certification involves working with the state employment office to attempt to hire local workers. But the state employment office does not verify whether the workers it refers even have the legal right to work here. And when one company asked workers to provide documents proving eligibility to work here, the agency claimed that this was illegal discrimination!

Farmers have lots of experience with this phenomenon. Just ask them. When they ask the employment office for referrals, the only ones who don't quit after the first day are usually the people who lack proper employment documents.

There are literally hundreds of extra regulations for the farmer who is attempting to hire workers using the federal guestworker program. And after successfully negotiating the regulatory hurdles, there is a good chance that the family farmer will face a lawsuit by legal services attorneys who know the regulations better than the government regulators, and are paid by - you guessed it - you, the tax-paying public.

One other point: the minimum wage that must be guaranteed to workers by farmers that are using the federally mandated guestworker program is over $9 per hour - that's over 20 percent greater than Washington's highest-in-the-nation minimum wage, and almost double the federal minimum. Add the cost of transportation and housing, both required under the guestworker law, and farmers end up shelling out over $12 per hour, as a minimum, for this program.

By the way, a farm-skilled worker picking cherries can easily earn over $100 per day in Washington. That's more than a farm worker in Mexico typically earns in a week, and close to double of what a farm worker in Asia earns in a month. Workers who are lucky enough to be selected for the American guestworker program can work half a year here and return to their native countries with enough money to purchase a sizable farm, and experience an abundant life.

Any economist will tell you that a labor shortage exists when an employer is unable to hire sufficient workers at a rate of pay that will preserve a profit from the operation. Using that definition, it's obvious that a labor shortage exists today in labor-intensive agriculture in Washington state. Whatever the reason for this shortage, and there are many, we need the government to cooperate with the private sector, not hold us back.

If our farmers cannot get their crops picked because they can't get the legal and qualified help they need, plus get it to market on time, then all of us will be affected every time we go to the supermarket. I am concerned that prices will skyrocket so that most of us simply can't afford to eat and won't be able to find domestically grown food the way we have since this nation was founded.

Without cooperation from government and support from citizens-who should look for American-grown fruits and vegetables at the grocery store- labor-intensive agriculture in America is doomed to the fate of manufacturing, energy and the other industries that have moved offshore. Agribusiness is definitely the last frontier of American autonomy. Think of it as the ultimate security issue, our being able to guarantee our ability to continue to buy the bounty of American agriculture.

Jim Honeyford (R-Sunnyside) is a state senator from the 15th Legislative District, serving much of the Yakima Valley. He farms grapes for the juice industry.

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