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Farmworker Advocacy Groups Want State To Investigate Possible Wrongdoing In Wage Survey

Andrew T. Sawyer
AP Photo

Farmworker advocacy groups are urging the state to investigate questionable responses by farmers to a survey about how much they pay their workers. 

In a briefing paper from Dec. 22, the state Employment Security Department said the survey yielded responses that were quite different from previous years – for example, some farmers reported paying the state minimum wage of $9.47 an hour instead of a piece rate per bin of apples picked.

The department said the growers appear to have been coached by the Washington Farm Labor Association, a group that helps farmers apply for foreign guest workers. The wage survey is used for setting pay for farmworker employment contracts, including in the H-2A guest worker program.

Dan Ford is an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, one of the groups pushing for the investigation. He said if the survey is inaccurate, it could result in workers getting paid less than they should be, including those in the foreign guest worker program.

"Farmers who would use the program, if the program is distorted and undermined, would lower the market wages for all Washington workers," Ford said.

The Washington Farm Labor Association said in a letter to the Employment Security Department that it advised growers to respond honestly, but that the survey itself was flawed.

"We believe that the survey is improperly magnifying piece rate wages, by asking employers to report the piece rates in the busiest week," Dan Fazio, director of the association, wrote in the letter. 

Washington farms have increasingly turned to H-2A guest workers because they say they can’t find enough local workers. Farmworker rights groups question whether there really is a labor shortage.

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.