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Lawmakers seek to ease picker shortage

OLYMPIA - 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 last week 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.

The proposal 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.

"Historically, it has not been unusual for school districts to adjust their schedules to accommodate seasonal agricultural work," Johnson noted. "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."

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.

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.

The measure has been referred to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

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