Thursday, September 23, 2021

Labor needs loom large in Central Washington

| August 13, 2021 1:00 AM

Last week, Congressman Glenn “GT” Thompson, the Ranking Member of the House Agriculture Committee, joined me in Central Washington to hear firsthand from farmers in our district about the challenges they are facing. While GT certainly appreciated the diversity of product Washington produces, the takeaway from all our meetings was clear: Our farmers are in desperate need of a reliable workforce.

From hop growers to tree fruit farmers, every single producer we spoke to had the same issue: There is not enough reliable labor to work their fields and orchards in time for harvest.

In Washington, the need is particularly acute because of how labor-intensive our crops are, but this is a nationwide issue. For several years, the number of men and women who are signing up to work in our fields has diminished, and many of the policies put forth by lawmakers in D.C. have only exacerbated the problem.

At the Center for Latino Farmers’ Small Farms Conference in Yakima, many expressed frustration at the lack of available labor – all made worse because federal and state governments are paying people more money to sit at home than to go back to work. I can’t blame them; farming is hard work that requires skilled labor, and it’s a cost-benefit analysis at the end of the day.

I introduced the National Signing Bonus Act, to convert existing pandemic unemployment benefits into signing bonuses. This bill would encourage Americans to do what we do best – get back to work and contribute to our recovering economy.

Unfortunately, this isn’t enough. Our farmers still face a severe shortage of legal farmworkers, and our H-2A program is, quite frankly, too expensive for many of our producers to utilize. It’s an unwieldy and outdated program that hasn’t been updated since 1986. I’d like to imagine the way we approach our workforce has changed in the last 35 years.

As much as agriculture employers in Central Washington would prefer to hire Americans to work in their fields, there just simply isn’t enough interest from domestic workers to get these jobs done. This puts our farmers in a tough spot – and this is especially true for small farms.

My legislation, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, aims to remedy this problem by streamlining the existing H-2A program and establishing a new employment- and merit-based program to ensure that not only are agriculture workers in the United States legally, but that they remain law-abiding and continue to contribute to our farms, ranches, local communities, and economies – creating a reliable labor source for our nation’s farms.

Whether you’re relying on burdensome, outdated government programs to secure labor or working with experienced employees who have been working your fields for decades, there’s a serious disconnect between having the labor to harvest our crops and getting them on the shelves at the grocery stores. This is a disconnect that many Americans really don’t understand, but Congressman Thompson picked up on it in a heartbeat.

After the first meeting we had, he turned to me and said, “This isn’t a money problem. This is a labor problem, and that’s a food security issue.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself. Farmers in Central Washington and across the country are facing a massive labor shortage, and, as the breadbasket for the world, that creates a threat to our food security and our national security.

I am committed to passing legislation in Congress to address these issues. For the sake of our region, our country, and the world, we must find a solution – before it’s too late.

Rep. Dan Newhouse represents the 4th Legislative District in the U.S. House of Representatives.