WASHINGTON — With too few hands to pick the apples in Washington state, Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire says the farm labor shortage has prompted a crisis.
In the Wenatchee Valley east of the Cascade Mountains, apple growers have posted their help-wanted signs across the countryside. And for the first time in years, growers in the state have launched a radio campaign, offering pay of $120 to $150 a day, but there have been few takers, much to the governor's regret.
"We're not getting anybody to take a bite on these jobs, so we don't have anybody to do these jobs," she said Thursday night.
While much of the talk on Capitol Hill is tough, with opponents of illegal immigration vowing to seal the borders, Gregoire said Congress should instead focus on a way to get more foreign workers to help with harvesting in her state, the nation's top producer of apples.
It's become an increasingly common refrain this year across the country:
- In Alabama, where a new state law is aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants, the construction, agriculture and poultry industries all report huge shortages of labor.
- A study by the University of Georgia this year found that the state had a shortage of 5,244 workers in the fields.
- In California, farmers have complained of too few workers to pick the avocados.
- In Texas, growers have appealed for more employees to help pick their organic crops and vegetables, with little luck.
Gregoire returned home Friday after leading a 15-member delegation of farm group representatives to Washington, D.C. They lobbied members of Congress to oppose a Republican bill that would force employers to use a federal database called E-Verify to determine whether their employees are eligible to work in the United States.
In Washington state, the governor and farm groups want nothing to do with it, for one simple reason: Roughly 66,000 of the 92,000 workers who are needed for seasonal harvests — nearly 72 percent — are "document challenged," according to the state's farm groups.
That's a nice way of saying they're in the U.S. illegally.
"With E-Verify, you're looking at a catastrophic thing that could happen to agriculture as a whole," said Jon Wyss, the president of the Okanogan County Farm Bureau, who accompanied Gregoire on her trip.
Wyss called Washington state "the refrigerator to the world," noting that it's the top producer of at least 13 agricultural commodities in the United States that are exported around the globe.
"They go through our ports, and if we don't have the labor to produce those commodities and get them to the ports, they're going to go somewhere else," he said.
Gregoire said it made no sense to rely on E-Verify alone, "without a solution to the overall problem."
"All we're going to do is penalize employers. We're going to lose jobs and we don't have any way to get those jobs back," she said in an interview at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, where she and the farm group representatives had met earlier with the office's chief agricultural negotiator. "Now why — in this recession, as hard-hit as we are — would we, the state of Washington, support that?"
Wyss and other farm group leaders said the labor pool had dried up partly because more migrant workers feared that they'd be detained as the federal government sought to get tough with employers who were relying on illegal labor.
In the first seven months of the year, federal officials reported that they'd already initiated nearly twice as many enforcement cases against businesses as they did in all of 2009. The issue surfaced in Vermont on Friday, when a group of migrant farm workers complained that too many police officers in the state were acting like immigration agents.
Gregoire said farmers were at a disadvantage because they couldn't simply move their operations if they needed more workers.
"Frankly, Microsoft has the luxury of opening up an office, because of the nature of its business, across the border in British Columbia," she said. "That doesn't work to pick cherries or apples."
Wyss, who represents more than 900 farm families in the county, said growers were facing a bleak harvest this year. He read an e-mail that he'd just received from one of them, who complained about a harvest that was two weeks behind schedule because the farmer was 200 pickers short and it had rained on four of the past seven days. Wyss said all of his growers were struggling to find labor this fall.
"You can't drive down a road in the Wenatchee Valley, between Cashmere to the Canadian border, without seeing a sign that says, 'Pickers wanted,' " he said.
Wyss said Congress should streamline the procedures to allow more foreign workers to be hired as farm laborers. He called the current process complex and cumbersome.
"You have to apply in January to get the worker in June," he said.
With members of Congress at loggerheads over immigration issues, Gregoire said her group told members of the Washington state delegation Thursday that they understand that any comprehensive overhaul wouldn't pass anytime soon.
"What we said to them is, 'We understand that you're not going to move on that until the election's over, but we're in a crisis now. Surely there's something you can do that will get us through at least next season, until you are able to deal with it as a comprehensive reform issue,' " Gregoire said.
"So we're being realistic with the delegation, but we're also saying the status quo is causing a huge problem in our state, at a time when we just can't afford it," she said.
Gregoire said the issue was particularly important as exports were increasing dramatically in Washington state, rising by more than 40 percent in the second quarter of this year compared with the same period a year ago. State leaders expect to see that rise continue with this week's passage of free-trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.
"A large part of that is agriculture," she said. "Every year they do better at exporting because — I will tell you, from every trade mission I've ever led — we have an international reputation as having high quality, and buyers are now gravitating to the quality."
On Monday, Gregoire will travel to China, where she'll lead another trade mission.
During her trip to Washington, D.C., she made a quick stop at the White House, where she met with President Barack Obama and White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley and participated in a news conference with Democratic Govs. Mark Dayton of Minnesota and Martin O'Malley of Maryland to promote the president's $447 billion jobs package.
She said the plan would provide a timely boost to her state's economy.
"It's about $1.8 billion, and it's about 27,000 jobs," she said. "And when you take a look at our economic crisis back there, we need something, and we need it yesterday."
(Tish Wells contributed to this report.)
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