Rob Valicoff is relying on 270 guest workers this year to pick his 1,700 acres of apples and pears in Wapato, nearly triple the 96 guest workers he used last year.

Under the federal H-2A guest worker program, growers are required to provide workers with housing, transportation, affordable meals and pay them higher wages.

“I’m excited now, to be honest,” he said. “Even if it costs more money, I’m excited for us not to be short of labor this year.”

It’s no secret that farmers are relying more on the guest worker program to fill gaps in a declining field labor force due in part by stiffer control at the Mexico border and President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant sentiments.

For nearly the past decade, the number of H-2A workers in the state has increased, from about 3,000 in 2009 to more than 18,500 last year. This year, the number is expected to climb to about 25,000, said Dan Fazio, executive director of the labor recruiting firm Wafla.

“It’s basically been on a steady 20-percent incline,” he said.

And with the increase comes a call for change by growers, who complain the program is too expensive, difficult to access and not available to the year-round agriculture industry such as dairy farmers.

New legislation — the Ag and Legal Workforce Act — backed by U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse and a handful of other lawmakers seeks to address some of those concerns by replacing the H-2A program with one that allows nonseasonal employers to tap the guest worker program and mandates the use of E-Verify, a computer database that allows employers to confirm workers’ legal status.

“The current labor shortage facing farmers must be improved by fixing the legal guest worker program. Farmers and our rural economy are being harmed by the current bureaucratic system that is not even available to all of agriculture. In order to continue domestic production of our own safe and affordable food in the U.S., Congress must pass legislation to reform our guest worker program and provide a stable, legal workforce for agriculture,” Newhouse said in a statement announcing the legislation.

Fazio said the changes are needed to keep the agriculture industry 

“We’re either going to make the changes necessary or there is going to be a major shake-up in the agriculture labor force,” he said.

One recent afternoon, more than 300 laborers filed into the dining hall at the former FairBridge Inn and Suites on North First Street in Yakima for dinner after a day in the fields.

Valicoff bought the 800-bed hotel and in June began housing H-2A workers from Mexico there. Some of the workers are employed by other growers, with Valicoff providing housing under an agreement with them.

Housing is free for workers, and they each pay $12.26 a day for three meals. They eat breakfast and dinner at the hotel and are provided sack lunches.

Valicoff would like to see changes that would require workers to pay a little more for meals and help with the cost of utilities.

“I think they need to pay a portion of that,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be a lot, maybe $6, $7 a day.”

He’d also like to see wages lowered for H-2A workers. The minimum wage is $14.12 an hour, above the state minimum wage of $11.50 an hour.

Guest workers are paid a higher wage in effort to discourage employers from overlooking the domestic labor pool.

Fazio said the higher wage is unfair given that most of the domestic labor force for seasonal agriculture is undocumented and the fact that growers absorb the housing and other costs for guest workers.

“That’s why we’re advocating a level playing field,” he said. “It’s almost like (the state) is encouraging an undocumented labor force.”

Although legislation backed by Newhouse doesn’t include those changes, it does seek to make E-Verify mandatory, which would improve access to H-2A workers by disqualifying the majority of the domestic workforce, Valicoff said.

“What people don’t get is 90 percent of the domestic workers out there don’t have documentation,” he said. “This is where we’re at today. We’ve been fighting this for a long time.”

Requiring E-Verify would help stabilize the workforce, Valicoff said.

Guest workers commit to a 10-month work contract, while domestic workers can leave to work at another farm whenever they want in search for the best pay.

“Here’s where the rub is; they either don’t show up at all, or they work for a short period of time — a week or less — and all of a sudden you’re short 50 people,” Valicoff said. “There’s no teeth in the rules of the domestic guys.”

Allowing dairies to tap a guest worker program would help in a time when finding labor has been difficult, even for year-round jobs, said Jay Gordon, policy director for the Washington State Dairy Federation.

“Labor is tight — we’re hearing more and more farmers saying it’s getting harder and harder to get workers,” he said. “There’s no exception. It’s pretty tough right now.”

Some dairies are using guest workers, but they aren’t allowed to work for a single employer for more than 10 months, which creates high turnover, Gordon said.

“We’re milking cows 365 days a year,” he said. “You get an employee set up, housed, and boom, he’s got to go home.”

Gordon said the goal is to get a guest worker program that allows people to work up to three years, which Newhouse’s legislation seeks.

“They would go home a couple of weeks every year and come back,” he said.

Not everyone embraces the guest worker program.

Steve Saunders at Yakima-based Apple King continues to get by with resident workers to pick his 500 acres of apples, and another 500 acres he picks for other growers. He said he can’t afford the program because the retail side of the agriculture market isn’t willing to offset the additional costs.

“We basically are subject to either the supermarket, buyers or the consumers, and they’re not going to pay any more just because we are, so the government is demanding more charge without us being able to recoup that.”

Something has to change or the reliance on a guest worker program will continue to see smaller farms absorbed by large ones, he said.

“The smaller guy doesn’t take a bite of the big guy, he sells to the bigger guy because he can’t afford it,” Saunders said.