Last week, Miguel Gonzales worked quickly to pluck apples from trees in an orchard north of Tieton before the snow season arrives.
“We work seven days a week, but that’s good,” Gonzales said after climbing down a ladder. “There’s not many people, so we have to work harder.”
Gonzales worked alongside several laborers hired by local grower Apple King to harvest a crop belonging to another grower – apples that otherwise wouldn’t have been picked.
Unable to find enough workers in an increasingly competitive labor market during prime harvest time, the grower told Apple King it could have the crop.
After decades of enjoying a robust low-wage labor force mostly comprised of Mexican immigrants entering the U.S. illegally, growers here and across the state are finding fewer laborers interested in coming here to work. Increasing border security, Mexico’s improving economy and declining birth rate and anti-immigrant policy in the U.S. are all forces obstructing the once abundant flow of low-cost foreign labor into the country – a trend that doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon, according to experts and recent studies.
A smaller labor pool – amid larger crop sizes from more and more fruit trees – is driving up labor costs and stressing the state’s multibillion-dollar fruit industry, said Apple King grower Mike Saunders.
“Until we get some kind of stability, it’s going to be a problem,” he said. “It’s one of those things we play year by year. I think we’ve all estimated kind of a small (apple) crop this year, and all of a sudden it turns out bigger.”
Mexican-born people account for the largest immigration to the U.S. of a single group in recent history.
In 1970, the Mexican-born population in the U.S. was less than a million, but the number swelled to a peak of 12.8 million in 2007, according to a 2015 study by the Washington D.C.-based Pew Research Center.
Now a reverse trend is occurring, with more leaving than arriving. In 2014, the Mexican-born population declined by more than a million, to 11.7 million.
The decline is most visible in unauthorized arrivals, which had dropped to 5.6 million in 2014 after a peak of 6.9 million in 2007, the report said.
Between 2009 and 2014, more than 1 million Mexicans and their families – including U.S.-born children – left on their own accord for Mexico while an estimated 870,000 arrived here over the same period, the study said.
Several factors, including more security and drug-related violence at the border paired with the United States’ slow recovery from the Great Recession, influenced the decline, the study said.
Although the need for farm labor is increasing due to more trees being planted per acre, it’s unlikely foreign labor will return to the abundant levels of the past, said Karina Gallardo, a Washington State University associate professor of economic sciences studying the labor shortage.
Mexico’s economy has steadily improved over recent years, offering workers more opportunities – in manufacturing and auto production, for example – beyond the fields.
A study by professors of agricultural economics at University of California, Davis, pegged Mexico’s annual per-capita salary at $15,000, about $7,000 less than the average salary of a picker in the Yakima Valley.
“They are having more incentive to stay,” Gallardo said.
Mexico’s economy has shown steady improvement, with its gross domestic product reaching $2.2 trillion in 2015 – although well below the U.S. $17.9 trillion, it surpassed Canada’s $1.6 trillion, according to the PanAm Post.
Quantifying the shortage
Signs seeking farm laborers are common across the Yakima Valley, but quantifying the perceived labor shortage is challenging at best with only anecdotal information from growers.
A system has yet to be devised to accurately tally labor shortages in the agriculture industry, said Mike Gempler, Washington Growers League executive director.
“I don’t think anyone could quantify it,” he said. “It’s a big economic exercise. We have never taken it on because it’s so big and expensive to take that on annually.”
The state Employment Security Department previously asked growers about worker shortages in its annual employment survey, but stopped a few years ago when budget cuts prevented the agency from replacing a retired analyst who processed that data, said research analyst Gustavo Aviles.
Now the department is taking a harder look at whether there is actually a labor shortage or merely a shortage of low-wage labor, and plans to release in December an analysis of the 2016 labor force. The study tracks workers leaving the agriculture industry and whether current wages are related to a shrinking hiring pool, Aviles said.
Laborers in the Yakima Valley earn a median hourly wage of $13.16. Some earn more doing piece work, earning anywhere from $20 to $28 for each bin of apples picked. An average picker can complete six or seven bins a day while a fast picker can complete 10 or more, Saunders said.
Saunders hired 200 pickers this season, and said he could have easily used an additional 100.
“The way the food came on this year, I could have easily used 300 pickers,” he said.
Filling the labor gap
Some growers are relying more on the H-2A guest worker program that provides immigrants temporary work permits. In 2015, more than 12,000 of the state’s 96,000 farm laborers were obtained through the H-2A program, according to Employment Security’s most recent annual agricultural workforce report.
Saunders doesn’t use the H-2A program because of the additional costs associated with it. Growers have to provide workers with housing, transportation and premium wages. He estimates using the H-2A program would cost him anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000 per worker the first year in startup costs. That doesn’t include wages and the annual cost of transportation, meals and housing maintenance each year.
“You have to build housing, restrooms, kitchen facilities and buy buses,” he said.
A simpler program allowing workers into the country until the work is done is needed, he said.
“It’s a program we really don’t need,” he said. “What we need is an allotment of workers allowed to come into the county – a work visa that gives them some legality here.”
But these laborers, who are largely undocumented, are most vulnerable to wage and hour theft and often don’t understand their rights as workers – there should be assurances built into the system for them, said David Morales, commissioner with the state’s Commission on Hispanic Affairs.
Too often workers are promised one wage only to find later they’re being paid less, he said.
“You promise a certain wage and change it later,” he said, “Most common is minimum wage theft – they don’t get it for all the hours they work.”
His office also has learned that some farmers discourage laborers from reporting work injuries to the state, or even fail to explain to them their rights regarding workplace injuries.
“My biggest concern as a commissioner for the Hispanic Affairs is that local farm workers’ rights are being protected, and I think we have a long way to go with that,” Morales said.
Grower Rob Valicoff, president of Valicoff Fruit, said he treats his workers fairly and the cost of implementing the H-2A program is too high.
One difficulty, he said, is farmers are not allowed to ask workers whether they’re in the country legally – they have to accept the documentation provided in the hiring process.
Valicoff said he saw issues with immigration and labor coming when President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act into law in 1986. The act ultimately granted millions of illegal immigrants amnesty.
“We’ve basically built an infrastructure in agriculture on a fraudulent workforce,” Valifcoff said. “This is what people didn’t get. In 1986, we knew that we were going to have a train wreck down the road.”
Establishing a smoother guest worker path may help, but won’t completely solve the problem, Gallardo said.
With an improving economy in Mexico, attitudes toward working in the U.S. are starting to change, she said.
According to the Pew study, 33 percent of adults in Mexico view life there as equivalent to life for those who move to the U.S. That finding represents a 10 percent shift from a 2007 survey.
“As Mexico continues its economic competitiveness, there’s going to be more competition for labor,” she said. “Even though wages are higher here, (workers) are less likely to come because of violence at the border and all the problems in the U.S. politically over immigration.”
While a guest worker program will help, there will be more reliance on machines to do the work, Gallardo said. “The solution has become less dependent on labor,” she said. “The solution is mechanization.”
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