New Law in Washington State Expands Farm Internship Pilot Program

A new law in Washington State, Establishing a Farm Internship Program (FIP), introduced as bill SB 5123 to the Washington State legislature in 2013, was signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee on March 28, 2014.

The law, which by all practical matters extends and expands a pilot program that had been in existence in Skagit and San Juan counties during 2010 and 2011, sets up a new, three-year pilot program to allow small farms in sixteen WA counties to take on interns, paid or unpaid. These interns will perform farm work, benefit from a structured educational program approved by the Washington State Dept. of Labor and Industries and administered by the farmer and receive Workers’ Compensation coverage with premiums paid by the farm. The new version revives the former pilot program, refines it, and extends it to King, Whatcom, Kitsap, Pierce, Jefferson, Spokane, Yakima, Chelan, Grant, Island, Snohomish, Kittitas, Lincoln, and Thurston counties (the full text of the new law can be viewed HERE).

The new pilot program has an effective date of June 12, 2014. The Employment Standards Program of Labor & Industries is currently in the process of building an implementation plan. A new Industrial Relations Agent (IRA) will be hired to assist with program implementation. The target hire date for the IRA is June 1, 2014.

Once the IRA is hired, s/he will begin reviewing and updating internship program forms, letters, etc., with an anticipated completion date of June 15, 2014. A stakeholder contact list is expected to be developed by June 1, 2014, and beginning the week of June 16, draft materials will be sent out for stakeholder review. L&I will be working with stakeholders and farm organizations to coordinate the outreach efforts.

Tisa Soeteber will be the Employment Standards point of contact for the pilot program. Her information is provided below. Please contact Tisa directly with any requests, questions, etc.

Tisa Soeteber
Industrial Relations Agent
(360) 902-4537
zepq235@LNI.wa.gov

The small farm economy in Washington is experiencing growth and with that comes a higher demand for trained farmworkers, many of whom will go on to become farm managers and farm owners. The Farm Internship Pilot Program will expand opportunities for on-the-job training for beginning farmers and farmworkers. The new law requires that the farms provide an educational component for farm interns in order to qualify for enrollment in the program. The educational component requirement is relatively simple for the small farm to comply with. The bill stipulates that each participating small farm “provides a curriculum of learning modules and supervised participation in farm work activities designed to teach farm interns about farming practices and farm enterprises[,] is based on the bona fide curriculum of an educational or vocational institution and is reasonably designed to provide the intern with vocational knowledge and skills about farming practices and enterprises.” Such curricula are available on-line and can be modified by each farm to fit its circumstances. It is also likely that that some agencies and organizations will make curricula that are specially tailored to FIP available to participating farmers. The bill calls for farm organizations and agencies such as WSU Extension, Tilth Producers of Washington, the Farm Bureau and others to offer assistance to participating small farms in fulfilling this and other aspects of their farm internship offerings.

An official assessment of the first pilot project was submitted to the legislature in 2011. Although participation in the program was low (six farms participating, nine interns enrolled), the report concluded “both the farms and interns are reporting high levels of satisfaction with this project. Their desire is to continue providing internships that are “sanctioned” instead of questionably legal [“flying under the radar”]. The farms and interns especially value the availability of worker’s compensation for interns available through the FIP project. Farmers have reported that the quantity and quality of the educational component of their internships has increased as a result of participating in the project. All of the enrolled farmers said that they would recommend the program to other farmers. Interns have reported high praise for the educational component of their internships.”

Traditionally, many small farms have relied on “informal employment” of interns or apprentices. Whether such arrangements are legal or not depends on the interpretation of unpaid internship criteria published by the WA Department of Labor & Industries (L& I) which are, in turn, based on the U. S. Department of Labor Fair Labor Standards Act (http://www.lni.wa.gov/WorkplaceRights/files/UnpaidInternshipsFactSheet.pdf).

The bill does not prohibit interns from being paid, that is left up to each farm to work out, but farms would not bound by minimum wage laws in regards to farm interns. The Interns would sign an agreement with the farm that establishes compensation, if any. Payment can be made in the form of stipends, room and board, combination of same, etc. Even if the intern is un-paid, the bill makes sure it is not simply free labor. The internship will need to be an educational experience based upon an approved curriculum. The intern will be receiving value in exchange for the time put in on the farm and the farmer will incur cost in fulfilling the educational and reporting obligations of the program as well as paying Workers’ Compensation insurance premiums to the state.

As the number of jobs on small farms grows the potential for farms to run afoul of labor laws increases. A farm’s viability comes under threat if it becomes embroiled in costly and time-consuming compliance and enforcement disputes with L& I. A small farm lacks sustainability if it allows risky employment practices and unnecessary exposure to legal entanglements to weaken its “economic viability”, which is one of the pillars of “sustainable agriculture.”

Another pillar of sustainable agriculture is “social responsibility.” One of the conditions that gave rise to a social responsibility aspect in sustainable agriculture was the long history of worker exploitation in agriculture. While it is true that many informal employment arrangements on small farms are on friendly terms, the protection that legal workers enjoy in terms of on-the-job injuries or financial security does not exist.

Under the new law, an intern on a small farm is not allowed to remain an intern indefinitely; that not only violates the tenant that unpaid interns cannot displace wage-earning workers (L & I criteria), but it disrespects decades of hard-fought, worker-led struggles to impose minimum wage protections upon labor exploiters of the past. Minimum wage laws exist to protect the rights of workers to receive fair compensation.*

Part of creating a revitalized, sustainable local food system, besides improving training for farmers and farmworkers, is increasing their security and stability by regularizing under-paid and un-paid internships – a tradition that dates back ages. The Farm Internship Pilot Program is an experimental step in that direction. Let’s encourage farmers to utilize its provisions so that we can assess its workability and possibly create a permanent, state-wide farm internship program.

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* There are three exemptions to the state minimum wage for agricultural workers. They only apply if all three of the following requirements are met: 1. Workers are employed as hand-harvest laborers who are paid piece rate; and 2. They commute daily from their permanent residence to the farm; and 3. They were employed in agriculture less than 13 weeks during the preceding calendar year. (Source: http://agr.wa.gov/Marketing/SmallFarm/DOCS/5-LaborOnTheFarm.pdf)

This is What Food Sovereignty Looks Like

FoodTankMemeThis image is a meme that was posted to Facebook by the FoodTank (a food think tank), an organization I respect. It is a quote by Bill Mollison, co-founder of the Permaculture movement. I say, yes! This is where we need to go. But first, there are a lot of nasty and unnecessary government regulations (at the federal, state, county and municipal levels) that need to be done away with for this to actually become a wide-spread and influential reality. Those rules, while in many cases appropriate to large-scale, export-oriented, general public wholesale and retail operations, need not apply to small-scale local producers who are simply feeding their neighbors through farm-direct or garden-direct exchange between the primary producer and the end consumer (eater). The People must act to remove any regulation that stands in the way of any small-scale, local producer from providing food– any food of choice– to any local end consumer through direct exchange. The People can hold the producers accountable for quality and safety of the food and we don’t need government regulatory bodies to do this for us, especially when, more often than not, they prevent or inhibit us from establishing these types of exchanges. This is what Food Sovereignty looks like.

I posted the comment above to the Food Tank’s meme and then my friend, Walt Kloefkorn, an activist from Stevens County, Washington (where some of Washington’s most progressive organizing around the issue of Food Sovereignty is happening) said:

“Most food safety regulations are not about preventing unsafe food from ever reaching the public, they are about tracing it back to where it came from. Obviously, those parts of the system add no value to a situation where food is sold directly.

The state and federal agencies are incredibly difficult to deal with for small farmers. The agencies claim that they are concerned about even one consumer being harmed, but in reality they ignore much more serious harms to consumers such as lack of access to healthy food, the thousands of chemicals that are accumulating in our bodies, and widespread food insecurity. If they had the least bit of actual concern for the safety of consumers, they would begin an immediate phase out of the potent neurotoxins we spray on our crops in ever-increasing amounts. They are captive to the corporate interests and are primarily concerned with preserving corporate profit, not consumer health.

The extreme fragility of the mono-cropped industrial food system and its vulnerability to various shocks, such as spikes in energy prices, climate disasters, and crop disease outbreaks, could easily lead to widespread food shortages, and even famine. Small, diversified farms supporting local and regional needs are the best way to restore the resiliency that will be needed to fend off these potential disasters.”

Yup, that about sums it up. Stay tuned. This is not merely rhetoric.