Regardless of which area we’ve covered for updates on crops and markets, for the past several years OnionBusiness.com has heard an often repeated comment: “Labor is tight.”
However, a common addendum to that statement from many of the industry insiders is that it’s not necessarily a lack of people to do the work but rather a flaw in the system that provides government benefits – benefits that can be lost if an individual exceeds allowable income from employment.
The problem runs deep, and this year the situation has become even more critical, with many sources telling us the available labor pool in their regions is the tightest it’s ever been.
The bottom line is that every aspect is impacted – ultimately including the market. We don’t have the answers; we do have questions.
Starting with the Treasure Valley of Idaho-E. Oregon, we’re reaching out for comments. How has your operation been impacted this season? How are you mitigating the situation? And what’s your message to those overseeing both domestic and foreign labor programs?
Because the Treasure Valley crosses the Idaho-E. Oregon border and involves two minimum wage laws and separate regulations for labor and unemployment benefits, we are citing stats from both states’ official websites/pages and news articles dealing with the convoluted issues.
We also spoke with Grant Kitamura, managing partner at Baker & Murakami Produce in Ontario, OR, who weighed in on the situation in the Treasure Valley, where onion acreage remains steady at 21,000-22,000. He said that a crew of between 80 and 90 people is needed during early harvest and to store onions from 3,000 acres, and this year, he said, the operation is working with half that number.
Although some of the work has been mechanized in recent years, there’s still that need for available and willing workers, and this season is critical.
With local labor shortages, some operations are relying on the H-2A temporary ag worker visa program.
The disparity of minimum wage paid in Oregon and Idaho is significant, and Idaho operations find themselves competing with its neighbor despite the law.
At $11.25/hour, Oregon’s minimum wage is among the highest in the nation. Currently, the District of Columbia is highest at $14; California, Massachusetts and Washington State are $12; and Arizona, Colorado, Maine, New York and Oregon all hit or exceed $11. Oregon is set to raise its minimum wage again July 1, 2020, to $12 on its march upward.
Idaho is at $7.25/hour now, which corresponds to the Federal Minimum Wage and is shared by several states. It is also the lowest per-state wage, with only the territory of Puerto Rico lower.
Taking a look at national agricultural worker stats provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we found that national figures had the 2018 medium ag worker pay at $24,620 that averaged out to $11.84/hour. The official numbers show that in 2018 there were 876,300 ag worker jobs nationwide, and the BLS noted in its 10-year job outlook that ag numbers are expected to experience “little or no change.”
We also narrowed the stats to “farmworkers and laborers, crop, nursery and greenhouse” using May 208 information provided at https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes452092.htm#st to determine occupational employment and wages. This showed 287,420 workers earning mean hourly wage of $12.72 and annual wage of $26,450. The hourly wages varied from a low of $10.53 to a high of $16.92.
Illustrating state rankings for ag workers, we saw California reported 194,850 employed; Arizona with10,290; Washington with 11,100; Idaho with 2,350; and Oregon with 5,750.
Additionally, we researched qualifications for welfare in Oregon and Idaho, visiting https://www.sapling.com/7750553/requirements-qualifying-welfare-oregon and https://www.tanfprogram.com/idaho-tanf-application-ta12.
The Oregon welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), “provides cash aid to eligible low-income families through the Oregon Department of Human Services. The program also offers employment services and job training to promote financial independence and reduce poverty statewide. Requirements for TANF depend on your total countable income, employment status, residency and household size.” Basic qualifications for a TANF household include “a needy child under age 18 or age 18 and a full-time student. A parent or caretaker relative must reside in the home. Pregnant women without other eligible children may receive benefits on the month prior to their due date month. Applicants must provide a Social Security number or apply for one.”
Pertaining to residency, the law states, “Applicant must be a U.S. citizen or qualified alien and reside in Oregon. Qualified aliens are legal immigrants, asylum seekers or refugees. Seasonal workers or recently relocated individuals may apply for benefits if they are not receiving TANF assistance in another state. You must show proof of residency or sign a statement verifying your intent to live in Oregon.” And there is the “recent unemployment” requirement that states, “Recently unemployed individuals are ineligible for TANF if they lost their job due to theft, misconduct or voluntarily quit employment without good cause within twelve months of applying for aid. Good cause for leaving employment includes but is not limited to caring for a disabled family member, accepting another job offer and disability or illness. Previous employment rules apply to jobs offering a minimum 100 hours of work monthly.”
There is also a stipulation regarding income, key to the issue: “As of 2009, Oregon residents may receive cash welfare aid if their countable monthly income does not exceed $345 for one eligible person and up to $1,622 for households with 10 members. Add $172 to your countable income for each additional family member. Employed TANF recipients deduct 50 percent of their gross income before eligibility is determined. Recipients participating in Oregon’s JOBS Plus program subtract an additional $90, child-support payments and an Earned Income Credit of $102 from their countable income before eligibility is calculated.”
Further considerations for Oregon say that “unemployed applicants must perform employment- related activities. Activities include seeking employment, enrolling in the JOBS Plus program, job-related education and accepting employment. You may be exempt from JOB Plus requirements if you are nine-months pregnant, caring for a disabled family member age 60 or older, not authorized to work in the U.S., receiving SSI, a qualifying volunteer or have pregnancy-related complications. Additionally, pregnant women may have reduced JOB requirements and are exempt from JOB for up to six months after childbirth.”
And on the Idaho side, TANF state and federal eligibility requirements must be met. “Individuals who apply for TANF must meet the monetary and non-monetary state guidelines, complete work-related activities, provide paternity information about the children in the household and report as required by the state. Idaho residents who qualify for welfare are required to furnish information such as citizenship, income, resources, and age. Only household members who are eligible can receive Idaho welfare benefits. Read on for more information about applying for TANF. If you have additional questions or issues about this program, then contact TANF Idaho.”
The program provides cash benefits for eligible low-income families and households to help pay for food, clothing, shelter, and other essentials, and applicants must be prepared with documentation of income, expenses, resources, etc. Part of the TANF program is TAFI, or Temporary Assistance for Families in Idaho that pays “up to a maximum of $309 per month for eligible families – up to the lifetime limit of 24 months. Actual benefit amounts are based on the family’s unique household circumstances, such as income and resources.”
Eligibility requirements include: “You must be a citizen or legal immigrant; You must be a resident of the State of Idaho; Your household income must be less than the program income limits for your household size; Your resources must not exceed the program resource limits.”
Citing an Ontario processing company that pays $20 per hour and is still having problems finding workers, Kitamura said he’s seen a disincentive to employment.
It’s one cause/effect in the overall picture, he said, adding he’s sympathetic to the children and families who struggle financially, receive benefits and ultimately run the risk of losing those benefits if they work more than a set number of hours. “A lot of people apply with us and give us a bad phone number or don’t answer the phone,” he said.
“When I was growing up, there was always talk about inner cities where people didn’t work because they received benefits,” he said. “I’m afraid it will happen here if we don’t allow people to work and receive benefits both. Don’t take away those benefits for seasonal and/or part-time workers.”
Acknowledging the complexity of the issue, Kitamura said, “If you don’t care to work, this is the place to be.”
Regarding migrant workers and H-2A, the process of bringing in labor has been addressed by the USDA and, we’re hearing, has been streamlined. But it’s still a major undertaking, with several requirements that must be met on the U.S. side. There must be a shortage of sufficient workers who are able, willing and qualified to perform the services when needed. The jobs must be ag-related – planting, raising, harvesting – and must be full-time requiring at least 35 hours per week. The job also must be seasonal or temporary, and the use of foreign workers may not adversely affect wages or working conditions of any U.S. counterparts.
At the website https://jordanramis.com/resources/articles/the-nursery-labor-shortage—-is-h-2a-the-solution/view/ we read info referring to Oregon: “Wages. In Oregon the hourly rate paid to H-2A workers must be at least as high as the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR). For 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor set the AEWR in Oregon and in Washington at $14.12 per hour; Housing. Employers must provide housing at no cost to H-2A workers and to domestic workers in corresponding employment who are not reasonably able to return to their residence within the same day; Meals. Employers must either provide employees with three meals per day or furnish free and convenient cooking and kitchen facilities where workers can prepare their own meals; Transportation. Employers must reimburse workers for reasonable transportation and subsistence costs incurred to travel to and from the work location from their country or place of origin. In addition, employers must provide free daily transportation between the workers’ living quarters and the employer’s worksite.; and the aforementioned “No discrimination against U.S. workers.”
Looking at Idaho, we went to https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/ssb/v7n11/v7n11p13.pdf and found that under Idaho Ag Services labor laws, “all persons performing farm labor contractor activities on behalf of migrant and seasonal farmworkers in Idaho must: Be licensed by the state and pay an annual licensing fee; Post a surety bond to cover unpaid wages; Carry auto insurance for all vehicles used in the farm labor contracting business; Carry workers’ compensation coverage for all employees; and Provide all employees at the time of hiring full disclosure of the conditions of employment.”
Moreover, “Agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers and plan to bring nonimmigrant foreign workers to the U.S. for temporary or seasonal agricultural labor must be certified to do so through the H-2A temporary agricultural program. While much of the process involves the employer working directly with federal agencies ̶ see links [on website] to learn about those ̶ the Idaho Department of Labor assists by reviewing the application, conducting housing inspections and helping the employer recruit qualified domestic workers.”
There’s no easy and quick way to secure labor, foreign or domestic. What’s the answer? We’re hoping for your input on how labor is impacting your area and your operation and what solutions you would like to see put into practice.
Featured image: stock photo