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Governor-Appointed Group To Tackle Farm Labor Issues In Wash. State

Bellamy Pailthorp
FILE - Workers at Sakuma Brothers Farms are seen at work.

After a tumultuous year in which berry pickers at a Skagit County farm went on repeated strikes, a new group appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee is set to start tackling farm labor issues. 

There are 10 people appointed to the farm work group; five are farmworker advocates and five represent the interests of farm owners.

The group was the brainchild of Rep. Kristine Lytton, D-Anacortes, whose district covers part of Skagit County, where workers at Sakuma Brothers Farms walked out last year to protest pay and other working conditions. She says the idea of the group is to bridge the divide between labor and management.

"Both sides need the respect and the dignity and the ability to come together and have the discussion to make sure that agriculture remains viable in Washington state," Lytton said. 

The group will meet four times this year with the first meeting this Thursday in Ellensburg.

Nina Martinez of the worker advocacy group Latino Civic Alliance says one issue she wants to address is whether there is indeed a farmworker shortage right now. 

"In the past, there’s been a lot of conversation about it, but there hasn’t been proof and I think the stakeholders in Washington state deserve to have that information," Martinez said.

The state Employment Security Department does have farmers complete surveys about their labor supply, and the most recent report indicates that farmers said they could have used 14 percent more workers in April. But Martinez says she wants more concrete data, and she hopes the work group will be able to come up with policy recommendations to help farmworkers. 

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.