Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill on Tuesday that provides additional state oversight of the growing federal H-2A guest worker program.
The law creates the Office of Agricultural and Seasonal Workforce Services within the state Employment Security Department and sets up an advisory committee with people representing farmworkers and agricultural employers to address H-2A issues.
The H-2A program allows agricultural employers to hire temporary foreign workers when there aren’t enough U.S. workers able, willing and available to do needed work. Employers must meet specific requirements, including pay, housing and transportation.
During debate of the bill, farmworker advocates sought additional checks on working and living conditions.
ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine said in a news release that the state expects growers to request more than 30,000 H-2A workers this year. The H-2A program has grown 1,000 percent since 2009 in Washington, the release said.
“Due to this rapid growth and high demand, we need an evaluation of the resources necessary to support this program,” she said in the release.
State Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, and Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, worked on the legislation to remove proposed new fees on farmers, another concern.
King said Wednesday he plans to help growers lobby to increase federal H-2A funding coming into the state. He said Washington’s share is much lower than other states.
“We as a state don’t understand why our allocations on H-2A are so low from the feds and we’re going to be working on that,” he said.
He said ESD is working with the Department of Health and Labor and Industries to better outline which state agencies are responsible for what pieces of oversight.
“Are there duplications? How do we manage this? There’s no reason to have three agencies doing the same thing,” he said.