OLYMPIA -- State Legislators hope to prevent a repeat of last year's farm labor shortage by creating more opportunities for students to take harvesting jobs.
Bipartisan legislation announced Friday would authorize the state Board of Education to allow school districts to adjust the 180-day school year in ways that free students to work in agriculture.
Rep. Norm Johnson,R-Yakima, one of the prime sponsors of House Bill 2408, said the bill is more a reminder to school districts that they already have the authority to establish a flexible calendar for students to work in agriculture.
However, it would potentially free millions for transportation of farm workers as well as allow vocational credit for the work.
"The bill leaves it pretty wide open as to what (schools and colleges) can do," Johnson said. "They could work as a senior project, colleges could offer some tuition incentive, some type of program where students could get credit for this."
Orchardists in Central and Eastern Washington lost portions of their apple crops because of a shortage of fruit pickers. In one case, a Quincy orchard contracted with the state to pay prison inmates minimum wage to pick the remainder of its crop. There also was a labor shortage in the western part of the state for berry picking and reforestation, Johnson said.
"Fruit harvests aren't important just to the growers, but to the entire community, the entire state," said Rep. Deb Eddy, D-Kirkland, one of the bill's prime sponsors, in a news release.
The bill also would set aside 10 percent of the money previously appropriated through the state's Rural Mobility Grant Program to help pay for transportation for all farm workers through vanpools, which Johnson said could be operated by the state or contracted out. Created in 2011 and funded through state and federal sources, the grant program awarded about $40 million in grants to rural communities for transportation projects in the current biennium. It was not immediately clear late Friday how much money would be set aside for transportation costs.
The bill also would temporarily prevent the Department of Health from raising fees related to the regulation and inspection of farm worker housing to encourage more farmers to provide it to their workers.
The bill's other prime sponsor, Rep. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said in the news release that finding "outside-of-the-box" protections against another labor shortage are crucial to boosting the state's economy.
"Agriculture is a vital, export-based industry for our state -- one that employs around 160,000 Washingtonians," Rivers said.
Sunnyside School District Superintendent Rick Cole said he hadn't read the legislation but supports the promotion of students taking work for school credit opportunities.
"Kids gain the skills necessary to enter the work force when they graduate," Cole said.
The bill has been referred to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.
According to the state Department of Labor & Industries, the minimum age for working in agricultural jobs is 14, although 12- and 13-year-olds may work during nonschool months, defined as June 1 to Labor Day, hand-harvesting berries, bulbs, cucumbers and spinach.