Housing helps attract workers
Employer-provided housing might help secure seasonal workers in a tight labor market.
Mike Gempler (facing camera) tours Sage Bluff housing project.
Housing—be it state-subsidized tent programs, onsite grower-owned, or public housing built for seasonal agricultural workers—is an attractive employment benefit that can help secure workers. With agricultural labor shortages looming in Washington State and many other parts of the nation, securing workers in the future will be very dependent on housing, says Jesse Lane, housing program manager for the Washington Growers League.
Great strides have been made in Washington in recent years to increase the number of beds for seasonal agricultural workers through a rent-a-tent program for cherries and construction of public and private migrant worker housing, he pointed out during the annual meeting of the Growers League held in February in Yakima.
The rent-a-tent program for cherry workers is an excellent example of state agencies and private enterprise working together to solve problems, he said. And, organizations like the Growers League and local housing authorities have built seasonal housing for migrant workers in several Washington areas in partnership with state funding dedicated to increase and improve farmworker housing.
But Lane said that state budget deficits could affect monies that were once a priority for farmworker housing.
The state budget deficit is clouding the future of the popular cherry tent program. The cherry tent program, a state-sanctioned project that began in 1995, now provides an average of 50,000 bed nights across the state during cherry season. Growers provide kitchen and dining facilities, showers and bathrooms, and concrete pads for the tents that sleep 7 people, and pay $12 a day for the tents and cots. The Growers League has served as administrator of the program since 2003.
“The tent program has been very successful, but it’s heavily subsidized by the state,” said Lane, adding that while growers pay $12 per day for the tent, the total cost of the rental is $31 per day. The commerce department subsidizes about two-thirds of the total cost.
“The Department of Commerce is not going to fund the program forever,” he said. “The state is broke, and we’re going to need solutions in how to continue the program.”
The advantages of the cherry tent program are several, he pointed out. “It’s inexpensive to operate, tents are simple in construction and easy to put away. Tent facilities are usually located close to the workplace, are low maintenance, and can be upgraded to a permanent facility.”
But there are downsides. Tents can only be used for cherry harvest, do not meet housing requirements of the federal H-2A temporary guest-worker program, and don’t offer much privacy. “They’re still tents. They’re hot in the summer and are noisy when it’s windy.”
The cherry tent program has been a win-win for communities and growers, providing shelter for migrant workers who often resorted to illegal camping. Lane is hopeful the cherry industry and state agency officials can work towards developing a more self-sufficient program.
Providing more farmworker seasonal housing has been a priority that has paid off for the state, though more is needed. State funds helped finance the Sage Bluff housing project at Malaga, just south of Wenatchee, a 40-unit facility built by the Growers League that opened in 2009. Sage Bluff has 270 beds that equate to 11,000 bed nights and is available to workers in all crops. Beds are rented by the day, week, month, or season, and growers can make reservations at any time. Additionally, Sage Bluff is compliant with H-2A requirements.
Similar migrant farmworker housing facilities, with funding from state and local authorities, have opened within the last few years in places like Othello and East Wenatchee.
Housing facilities like Sage Bluff can help growers provide housing without the hassle of building or managing their own, Lane said. “The problem is that there just aren’t enough of them around, and they may not be available in your area—yet.” The Growers League is interested in building another facility in another location, although it is unlikely that it will happen this year.
Build your own
Growers also have the option of building their own worker housing. “But building your own can be intimidating to some growers,” said Lane. Not only are there financial aspects to consider, but also growers must deal with a host of people—contractors, inspectors, architects, engineers, local authorities—and a variety of planning and scheduling issues. Has a site analysis been conducted, and is the proposed site economical and cost effective? Are there road aspects to consider?
“And once the project is done, there’s still more paperwork in the application and licensing process,” he noted.
The Growers League has initiated a new program called Project Construction Coordination Services to help growers through the maze of housing issues. Lane said the goal is to help growers who want to build their own housing units but may not have the time or inclination to deal with all aspects of the project.
The Growers League has helped more than 20 growers to develop on-farm housing, and has worked with the state health department’s farmworker housing division and construction review services division for more than eight years.
The construction coordination services include planning and feasibility assessment, preconstruction assistance, permit application assistance, project supervision and management, and operational assistance. The cost of a farmworker housing site evaluation with an hour consultation is $250; other work is billed by the hour ($85) and may be subject to a service contract. Services are available to all growers regardless of membership in the Growers League.