A growing number of farmers have turned to a federal guest-worker program to bring in foreign workers, despite longstanding complaints that it's too cumbersome and expensive to be of any real help. Growers in the program generally must pay a higher wage, plus provide housing and transportation in and out of the country.
The Labor Department approved about 4,200 guest-workers for Washington this year — up from nearly 2,100 three years ago — but that's far fewer than the thousands needed to work each year.
McDougall & Sons orchard, which has been family-owned for five generations, brought in 240 foreign workers under the program. A one-week extension to their contract kept them here until the end of October, but their exodus left the orchard short pickers when the harvest still wasn't done.
That's when Scott McDougall became the only grower to accept the governor's offer of inmate labor.
More than 100 inmates arrived, with security officers in tow, to pick Jazz apples, which are in limited production and have a higher value. Each inmate cost $22 per hour, which McDougall pays the state to cover transportation, food, housing and security.
"I'd say they're probably picking about half what an experienced picker would pick," he said. "The value of the fruit obviously — vs. having it frozen on the tree — warrants the higher rate."
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