May 24, 2019
H-2A program faces scrutiny under new Washington state measure

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on May 22 signed legislation that will allow the state’s Employment Security Department (ESD) to ensure foreign workers under the federal H-2A program have the support they need on the job and growers have the assistance they need to utilize the H-2A program properly.

E2SSB 5438, which passed the Legislature with bipartisan support, creates the Office of Agricultural and Seasonal Workforce Services within ESD to build upon work ESD already does to administer the H-2A program as required by federal law and U.S. Department of Labor guidance.

“This new law is a win-win-win in which agriculture workers get the protections and support they need, growers obtain the labor they need to succeed in a competitive marketplace and Washington is a desirable place for consumers to buy agriculture products from because they know workers and employers are treated well,” said Employment Security Department Commissioner Suzi LeVine.

“We appreciate the robust and bipartisan stakeholder involvement during the negotiations around this legislation and look forward to continuing to work with stakeholders through the advisory committee, as well as our partner agencies, to implement the bill as directed.”

Federal law

Under the federal Immigration and Nationality Act, the H-2A program allows agricultural employers to hire non-immigrant temporary foreign workers with H-2A visas when there are insufficient U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified and available to do needed work. Employing foreign workers also must not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers. Employers using H-2A workers must meet specific requirements, such as providing specified rates of pay, housing and transportation.

ESD’s expanding role

ESD is required to process H-2A applications from employers and help recruit domestic workers for these jobs. ESD also partners with other state agencies to conduct field checks and visits to ensure employers are providing wages, hours, working conditions and appropriate housing as agreed to in the H-2A application.

“ESD’s workload for the H-2A program has grown 1,000 percent since 2009,” LeVine said. “We predict growers will request more than 30,000 H-2A workers during 2019. Due to this rapid growth and high demand, we need an evaluation of the resources necessary to support this program. We are pleased the Legislation recognized the need for action and look forward to working with the committee members going forward.”

New law

The new law directs the ESD commissioner to appoint an advisory committee to review issues related to the H-2A program, including:

  • Four voting members representing agricultural workers’ interests, including one farmworker;
  • Four voting members representing agricultural employers, including one agricultural employer;
  • Three non-voting ex officio members from the departments of Labor and Industries, Health, and Agriculture respectively;
  • One ex officio member, without a vote, to represent ESD and serve as the chair.

The committee will comment on rule making, policies, and implementation of the new law, as well as study other issues. It will also submit a report, in even years, to the Governor and the Legislature:

  • Identifying and recommending approaches to increase the effectiveness of ESD’s recruitment process as part of the H-2A application, and if necessary include recommended changes to state law; and
  • Analyzing the costs to administer the H-2A program, the funds to administer other department programs for farmworkers, and the amount of funds allocated by the federal government to administer the H-2A program and all other agricultural programs within the department.

E2SSB 5438 originally passed state Senate by a vote of 26-21. The state House of Representatives amended it and approved it 96-0 then the Senate concurred by a vote of 35-12.


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