A recent state survey on wage rates for farm workers was biased by an industry group’s “recommended answers” in an apparent attempt to keep standard minimum wages low, state officials say.
The voluntary survey asked growers how and how much they pay workers for different tasks and different crops, such as piece-rate pay for harvest but hourly wages for pruning.
The data is used by the federal Department of Labor to set wage rates for employment contracts, such as those for guest workers under the H-2A program.
A report released this week by the state Employment Security Department (ESD) concludes that its initial analysis of the survey found distinct differences from previous years reflecting the guidance provided by the Washington Farm Labor Association (WAFLA) provided to apple, cherry and pear growers.
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The Lacey-based association, which provides services to farms that hire seasonal employees, urged growers to report paying hourly rates instead of piece rates because hourly rates are typically lower, to be vague about how often they pay bonuses, and to say that they do not provide free housing for workers’ family members, according to the ESD report.
WAFLA is the largest recruiter of guest workers from Mexico under H-2A in the state with more than 6,000 contracts in the last few years.
In videos posted on YouTube in September, WAFLA executive director Dan Fazio goes through the survey and recommends answers.
“This question is attempting to force employers to pay high piece rates,” Fazio, an attorney, says about one asking for the piece-rate in the busiest week of the season. “The best answer, in our opinion, is to report your guaranteed hourly rate.”
Fazio did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
The agency became aware that WAFLA was distributing specific answer suggestions to growers this fall when the survey was conducted, said Cynthia Forland, the director of labor market and performance analysis for ESD.
So, they decided to check the results to see if the guidance biased the results and found that between 5 percent and 9 percent of apple growers who responded had been “influenced” by WAFLA’s recommendations.
“The idea is because there was specific public direction – this is how we recommend you answer these questions – we were able to match responses to that example and put that against the real responses,” Forland said Wednesday.
The “influenced” responses changed the average wage for harvest of Fuji, Golden Delicious, and Granny Smith apples from more than $20 a bin to $9.47 an hour. Other varieties were not affected and the average remained between $20 to $25 a bin, according to the ESD analysis.
Forland said she did not know why some varieties were affected but not others.
A copy of the survey guidance obtained by the Herald-Republic suggests that growers report paying an hourly wage of $12.42 or $9.47 instead of a piece rate, because “this question is attempting to force employers to pay higher piece rates. Don’t take the bait!”
In the YouTube video, Fazio says providing the hourly rates is a fair answer because piece rates can very so widely, between picking trellised and non-trellised trees, for example. He adds that when ESD developed the survey, it declined WAFLA’s request to ask for hourly wages but allowed people to submit hourly wages if they preferred.
He also recommends answering no to the question about whether free housing is provided to nonworking family members of seasonal workers.
“I’m going to put a big no because if you check yes, you could be strapped with a requirement to provide housing for all your non-employee family members,” he said in one of the videos.
But for a question on minimum production standards for workers, WAFLA’s guidance document suggests to “answer this question truthfully, as it relates to your operation.”
Forland said the ESD analysis is preliminary at this time and further work is needed to see if growers of row and nursery crops were influenced by the recommendations as well.
Whether the survey responses will be used to set wage rages for next season’s guest worker contracts remains to be seen, she said.
“We have already alerted the Department of Labor to the issues raised here concerning the introduction of bias in the survey results stemming from the actions taken by WAFLA,” Forland said.