The advocates asked the state attorney general and the Employment Security Department to investigate the actions of the Lacey-based Washington Farm Labor Association regarding the survey.

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SPOKANE — Advocates for farmworkers this week asked the state to launch a criminal investigation into whether a business group influenced answers to a survey of wages and working conditions.

The advocates asked state Attorney General Bob Ferguson and the Employment Security Department to investigate the actions of the Lacey, Thurston County-based Washington Farm Labor Association regarding the survey.

“We also request action to protect agricultural workers from economic harm as a consequence of such actions,” said the letter from the Washington State Labor Council, the AFL-CIO, Columbia Legal Services and others.

The voluntary survey asked growers how and how much they pay workers for different tasks and different crops, such as hourly wages for pruning and piece-rate pay — or how much they produce — for harvest. The data is used by the U.S. Department of Labor to set wage rates for employment contracts, such as those for temporary guest workers from foreign countries.

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The state Employment Security Department released a report in December that showed distinct differences from previous years, possibly reflecting the guidance provided by the Washington Farm Labor Association to apple, cherry and pear growers.

The Washington Farm Labor Association did not immediately return telephone calls from The Associated Press on Tuesday.

But in a letter sent Monday to the Employment Security Department, association Executive Director Dan Fazio said his group advised growers to answer survey questions honestly.

Fazio wrote that the association recommended providing hourly base-pay rates instead of piece rates because they are more consistent through the season.

“We believe the survey is improperly magnifying piece-rate wages by asking employers to report the piece rates in the busiest week,” Fazio wrote. “Given the wide fluctuation of piece rates over a season, this is fundamentally unfair.”

“We apologize if you believe that our guidance created bias in the survey and we pledge to work with you on outreach in upcoming surveys to provide accurate results,” Fazio wrote.

The association, which provides services to farms that hire seasonal employees, urged growers to report paying hourly rates instead of piece rates, because hourly rates are typically lower.

Growers were also instructed to be vague about how often they pay bonuses, and to say they do not provide free housing for workers’ family members, the Employment Security report said.

The Washington Farm Labor Association is the state’s largest recruiter of guest workers from Mexico under the federal H-2A program, with more than 6,000 contracts in the last few years.

Officials became aware the association was distributing specific answer suggestions to growers this fall when the survey was conducted.

Employment Security decided to check the results to see if the guidance biased the answers, and concluded that between 5 percent and 9 percent of apple growers who responded had been “influenced” by the Farm Labor Association’s recommendations.

The “influenced” responses changed the average wage for harvest of Fuji, Golden Delicious, and Granny Smith apples from more than $20 a bin to $9.47 an hour.

The farmworker advocates in their letter said they were worried that the association’s actions “will have a direct impact on the wages and working conditions for all Washington farmworkers.” That includes driving down wages and denying domestic workers jobs in favor of temporary foreign workers.

The fact that Employment Security found that grower responses “differed significantly” from previous years indicates that false or misleading data was provided to the agency, which is a crime, the advocates contend.