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October 2007, Volume 13, Number 4

Washington State Farm Workers

This five-chapter report is a model of what states could do to review trends in their farm labor markets and shed light on often controversial issues ranging from earnings to labor shortages. The report is based on UI data (Washington has had almost universal coverage since 1990), the 600-grower monthly Agricultural Labor Employment and Wage Trends survey, and the Washington Annual Agriculture Bulletin.

In 2004, Washington had farm sales of $5.9 billion, including $4.2 billion or 71 percent from crops and $1.7 from livestock. Crop sales included $1.5 billion worth of fruits and nuts, $535 million worth of specialty crops such as nursery products, and $366 million worth of vegetables (p33). About 29 percent or $1.9 billion worth of farm commodities were exported.

Washington had 3.1 million workers in 2005, including 2.4 million or almost 80 percent west of the Cascade mountains and 670,000 or about 20 percent east of the mountains. Agricultural employment was 93,200, but its location was the reverse of statewide employment- 80 percent is east of the mountains, including 25 percent in Yakima county and 14 percent in Chelan and Douglas counties.

In 2004, some 7,100 firms hired 73,000 farm workers directly, paying them $1.3 billion and making average annual earnings $17,400; average earnings in the dominant fruit and nut sector were lower, $14,300. Half of these workers, 36,800, were employed in fruit and nut farming and 11,400 or 15 percent were employed in support activities (p37). Farm employment peaks at about 60,000 in June-July, when cherries, 40 percent, and apples, 30 percent, dominate the demand for farm workers, and again in September-October, when apples are over 70 percent of farm worker employment.

Chapter one reviews trade issues affecting the Washington agriculture and the demand for hired workers. The Washington apple industry fought a long-running battle to open Japan's markets, and more recently faced tariff barriers in Mexico that could be due to US restrictions on avocado imports. Washington apple and asparagus producers are being squeezed out of the processing side of the market. The Washington asparagus industry, which used to have a larger processing than fresh segment, switched to primarily fresh asparagus after Peruvian imports made processed asparagus non-viable.

Chapter two includes several measures of seasonality (p24), including peak-trough ratios and the share of all workers hired in a commodity who are hired in the peak month. The peak month share for cherries is 58 percent, meaning that, of every 100 workers hired in cherries sometime during the year, 58 are employed in July- (if labor demand were even throughout the year, each month's share of employment would be 8.3 percent). Apples are far less seasonal, with a peak month ratio of 20 percent.

Chapter three notes that Washington farm workers employed only in agriculture averaged 821 hours in 2005, while those employed in both farm and nonfarm jobs worked almost 1,300 hours. Average annual earnings for only farm workers were $8,900, compared to $14,900 for those who had both farm and nonfarm jobs (p54). Real average hourly earnings fell slightly between 2001 and 2005 for only farm workers, and were flat for workers with both farm and nonfarm jobs, even though the state's minimum wage rose from $6.72 to $7.35 (p56).

By commodity, real average hourly earnings in pears rose, but not in cherries and apples, the two commodities that hire the most seasonal workers. In an interesting graphic and table (p63), the report notes that unskilled wage rates are similar in the US and western Europe, and that the US can produce apples $10 to $20 a 1,000-pound bin cheaper than France, Italy, and Germany. However, Poland can produce apples at half the average $120 a bin US cost.

Chapter four turns to UI. ESSB 6885 codified two changes introduced in 2005, that is, calculating UI-eligible earnings based on the two highest-earning quarters in the base year and requiring that eligibility for benefits be liberally construed. Weekly UI benefits were reduced to 3.85 percent of average wages in the two quarters, down from four percent. Thus, a worker earning $14,000 in two quarters could receive $539 a week in UI benefits, which may keep more workers tied to agriculture.

In 2005, an average 4,550 farm workers were receiving UI benefits; the ratio of UI beneficiaries to employed seasonal farm workers varied from a low of five percent in June-July and September-October to over two-thirds in December-January. The total number of UI claimants was 23,400 in 2005, including two-thirds Hispanics and two-thirds with less than a high-school diploma (UI claimants must present evidence of being legally authorized to work in the US).

Stromsdorfer, Ernst W. 2007. Agricultural Workforce in Washington State 2006.