With another harvest completed, we look ahead to seeing friends at the Washington State Tree Fruit Association Annual Meeting and NW Hort Expo, to holiday gatherings with family and to the new year. But wait, this calendar says 2022: That can’t be right.
We have all been disoriented by the rapid succession of natural and human-caused crises over the past two years and the costly, and often unwelcome, changes they’ve brought. With a sigh, we wearily ask: “What NOW?” and move on to the next headache. This can cause us to miss the chance to reflect on our successes so far and the opportunities ahead of us.
COVID-19 has been the most persistent of these challenges. We’ve come a long way since the spring of 2020 when agriculture’s response was subject to sometimes hostile second-guessing from activist groups, media and government. Recognition of your collective efforts to ensure the safety of your workforce and the public has grown, and we increasingly compare favorably with other sectors of society. As a result, this criticism has faded and ag-specific regulations have mostly been replaced by general business guidelines. We’ve now learned from countless Zoom calls that silence may be unsatisfying feedback, but it is often an indication of approval.
Speaking of Zoom calls, during the “virtual” 2021 legislative session we were successful in protecting agricultural employers from the looming prospect of court-imposed retroactive overtime liability. This entailed accepting that the Washington Supreme Court was going to strike down the exemption for the rest of agriculture, as it had for the dairy industry, while allowing for a longer phase-in period. Making a difficult situation less bad isn’t as satisfying as getting what you want, but avoiding the worst-case scenario was still an accomplishment in the current political environment.
However, we still have work ahead of us. State grower groups are seeking to restore some seasonal flexibility on overtime that had been initially agreed to and was then stripped from the final bill. Workers and employers need the ability to work more than 40 hours per week at the base rate for limited periods of time without triggering cost-prohibitive overtime pay. Doing so would benefit employers facing labor shortages and weather-related variability in scheduling. Moreover, it would benefit workers who would otherwise see their hours capped and their overall income reduced.
Based on the latest reports from legislators, they may be conducting some business in-person during the 2022 session but not on-campus meetings with the public. This means we will likely have to do most of our advocacy efforts virtually again this year. While not as satisfying as face-to-face meetings, it does mean that more growers and their employees can participate in Tree Fruit Day on Jan. 25, without having to travel. Now is the time to start talking to your colleagues and employees about participating in our virtual meetings with legislators to discuss how overtime pay and other state policy changes are affecting your operation. Sign up now at wstfa.org/tree-fruit-day.
Fortunately, there are a few silver linings to the dark clouds we have been experiencing. For years, we have been explaining the agricultural labor shortage, the need to enhance our transportation and port infrastructure, and the perils of driving food production overseas through a hostile regulatory climate. Too often we were ignored. But this is changing as American consumers experience empty supermarket shelves, see mountains of cargo containers at ports and dozens of ships waiting off our shores, and see jobs across the economy go unfilled regardless of the substantial bonuses and wage increases being offered. This is the moment to do more than just say: “I told you so.” Now that we have their attention, we must take this opportunity to educate the public and to push elected and appointed officials to act on the policy changes and infrastructure investments we need.
In these uncertain times, it is more important than ever to stay informed and involved in your industry association. Don’t forget that growers whose fruit is packed by a dues-paying member of WSTFA receive all member benefits at no further cost. If you are not already receiving our Tree Fruit Topics newsletter, emailed all-member updates on developing issues, or any of the statistical reports you are eligible to receive, please contact our office to ensure that you are added to these distribution lists.
It’s natural to be frustrated by the number, scope and nature of the changes we have had to deal with. But don’t lose sight of how successful our industry has been in adapting to them, or of the opportunities for future success that lie before us.
—by Jon DeVaney