More than 500 foreign workers who are supposed to help with apple harvest in the Tri-City area and Yakima Valley might finally arrive later this week.
Farmworkers coming through the federal guest worker program have been delayed in Tijuana, Mexico, after a July 20 crash of the State Department's visa database.
Timing is critical because Tri-City area and Yakima Valley farmers already are beginning to harvest what is expected to be the state's largest-ever apple crop. While apple harvest lasts into the fall, there is a short window when specific apple varieties and orchards must be hand-picked before the fruit quality is lost.
"The apples aren't going to wait," said Roxana Macias, the Washington Farm Labor Association H-2A program manager.
On Monday, 163 of the association's prospective workers attended meetings at the Tijuana consulate, she said. Visas are expected to be issued to those workers this afternoon. Dan Fazio, the association's director, is in Tijuana, trying to make sure visa processing goes smoothly.
The farm labor association wasn't told at first why the visa delays were happening, Macias said. The system that crashed is the one that the State Department uses to process nonimmigrant visas nationwide. A backlog of at least 200,000 visas was created.
Then, the State Department excluded H-2A visas from its priority list, Macias said. That did not change even after Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and her office intervened.
But Murray helped the association get an assurance from the Tijuana consulate that the farmworker visas are a priority, which gave the association the confidence it needed to make visa processing appointments at the consulate this week, Macias said.
Because of the delays, the association also is moving workers through consulates at Nogales and Hermosillo, Macias said.
About 8,500 H-2A workers are expected to help with Washington crops this year. More than 5,000 of those workers are arranged for by the farm labor association, which provides human resources services.
About 1,500 H-2A workers are expected to join the 7,000 already in Washington.
Some Tri-City and Yakima Valley apple farmers had asked for workers to be available starting Wednesday, Macias said.
Wenatchee farmers need workers starting next week and Okanogan County farmers need workers the week after, Macias said. Some of the workers also are needed to help with harvesting pears.
The association has 67 applications for foreign workers this year, but each application can have multiple employers, and some farmers submitted more than one application, Macias said.
Some of the 500 workers waiting at the border to enter the U.S. traveled a long distance to reach Tijuana, did not have much money and became stranded. The association has been trying to get money to those waiting workers, some of whom have been waiting two weeks.
"A couple weeks of lost wages is an economic disaster for farmworkers," Fazio said in a statement.
The delay has also cost Washington farmers, who are required to provide transportation to foreign workers through the federal guest worker program. Transportation already had been scheduled for workers who ended up not being able to enter the country when planned, Macias said. Employers end up paying the cost for the unused buses.
Bringing workers into the U.S. using the guest worker program already is an expensive, cumbersome process, Macias said.
The workers, many of whom have previously worked in Washington, already have agreed to a contract with their Washington employers as early as five weeks before they are needed, Macias said. A fee is paid to reserve a consulate appointment.
Workers must show photos, be fingerprinted and go through an interview at the consulate to make sure they meet all the requirements to receive a visa through the program, Macias said. Typically, they find out if they will receive a visa the next day if they are approved.
Use of the H-2A program benefits Washington's economy, domestic and foreign workers and farmers, Macias said.
Farmers who use the H-2A program end up paying higher wages to domestic workers doing the same work as the foreign workers, Macias said. Domestic workers also get additional employment guarantees because of the program.
More farmers have been turning to H-2A for a stable and legal work force. Record-breaking harvests in labor-intensive crops, especially cherries, apples and wine grapes, as well as changes in the migration patterns of workers from Mexico, have made it more difficult for farmers to find enough workers.
For example, Tri-City area farmers found fewer workers in 2012, when they harvested the state's last record apple crop. The most apple workers employed in Benton, Franklin, and Walla Walla counties was almost 8,200 in October 2012. That was down by more than 1,000 workers from the same month the previous year. Employers needed more workers, but couldn't find them.
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-- Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; email@example.com