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Mark and Kevin Stennes, growers in Pateros, Washington, fixed up their worker housing specifically to be able to use the H-2A program. They plan to bring in 50 foreign workers this year, recruiting through the Washington Farm Labor Association. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

Mark and Kevin Stennes, growers in Pateros, Washington, fixed up their worker housing specifically to be able to use the H-2A program. They plan to bring in 50 foreign workers this year, recruiting through the Washington Farm Labor Association. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

The number of employees working in Washington State under the federal H-2A temporary agricultural worker program has been growing at double-digit rates and is likely to continue to increase over the next few years, says Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association.

Innovative orchardists, together with a supportive state government, are finding ways to make the cumbersome and complex program work for them, he says.

In fact, Zirkle Fruit Company based in Selah, Washington, and Gebbers Farms in Brewster, Washington are among the top H-2A employers in the country.

Fazio said very small growers were some of the first in the Washington tree fruit industry to recruit through the H-2A program.

They needed three to four specific individuals who had been coming from Mexico to work for them and didn’t care how much it cost to get them back.

The next to embrace the program were large growers who have been investing profits from recent years in worker housing, which they’re required to provide free for H-2A workers. Since 2006, the tree fruit industry has spent more than $100 million on new housing, Fazio said.

Now, midsize growers are finding ways to use the program by sharing foreign employees, which reduces the costs of recruiting and transporting them.

It’s estimated that the Washington tree fruit industry needs more than 50,000 orchard workers during peak apple harvest. Last year, more than 6,220 foreign guest-workers worked on Washington State farms, of which 98 percent worked in tree fruits.

Fifty-six H-2A applications were filed in 2013, and WAFLA filed more than 80 percent of them on behalf of growers.

The Washington Farm Labor Association represents growers of a number of crops, including row crops, watermelons, and blueberries, as well as tree fruits.

Because of this, it can easily set up sequential contracts. For example, workers can arrive in Washington for cherry harvest, then go pick blueberries in ­midsummer, and move to a third farm in the fall to harvest apples.

The association works with an agent in Mexico that locates prospective workers through radio announcements or by following employer leads, although some employers do the recruitment themselves. Anyone who previously worked in the United States without authorization is ­forbidden from returning within three years.

The agent holds meetings to describe the job and explain terms and conditions of the contract. The H-2A program stipulates the wage rate for foreign workers, which this year is $11.87 an hour, down from $12.00 last year. Employers must also provide benefits, housing, and round-trip transportation, and guarantee at least 75 percent of the wage specified in the contract.

“The biggest guarantee of all is they get the dignity of being here legally,” Fazio said.

When it’s time to go, the prospective workers are bused to an appointment at a U.S. Consulate in Mexico. Those bound for Washington typically go through Tijuana, where they stay at a hotel for a couple of days while going through fingerprinting, background checks, and an interview. After receiving their visas, the workers are transported from the border by bus to the farm.

This process incurs a whole host of charges, including fees for the agent and the U.S. Consulate. The employer must pay for all these, plus all travel and incidental expenses during the trip.

* Miscellaneous fees include state taxes, advertising, and Department of Labor  and U.S. Immigration Services filing fees. (SOURCE:  Washington Farm Labor Association)

* Miscellaneous fees include state taxes, advertising, and Department of Labor and U.S. Immigration Services filing fees. (SOURCE: Washington Farm Labor Association)

Turnkey program

Fazio said WAFLA has devised a turnkey program whereby it handles all the arrangements, does all the complex paperwork, makes all the various payments, charters the bus to deliver workers to the farm, and charges the farmer a single fee, which usually amounts to about $1,200 to $1,300 per person.

“The employer wants the workers to show up at their farm on the date that they need them and make one payment to WAFLA,” Fazio said. “They want us to do everything. They want the worker to be their responsibility from the day the contract starts until it ends and our responsibility to get them back home at the end of the contract.”

The association, which has five employees working on the program, makes sure the bus is at the farm on the last day of the contract and that all the workers get on board. Often, they are transported to another farm for another contract. Fazio said once workers have visas for the first contract, it is rarely a problem for WAFLA to obtain a second or third visa for them, although the worker has the option of declining and going home.

“Once they get a visa the first time, renewal is no problem,” Fazio said. “The authorities don’t care. They just care that the visa has been approved.”

The H-2A program stipulates that workers cannot be at a single farm for more than ten months. However, they can work under multiple contracts for up to three years, with a maximum of 30 days between contracts. Then they have to go home for six months.

Stable workforce

What’s the best thing about the program for the employers? “What they love is they have a workforce,” Fazio responded.

A crackdown on illegal border crossings combined with a lack of comprehensive immigration reform has prevented migrant workers from moving back and forth between the two countries as they used to do.

Growers who use the program appreciate that it gives them a stable workforce. While the H-2A contract is in effect, the farmer’s domestic workers must be paid the same rate, which can be used as an incentive to hire and retain people.

“They can actually now say to the domestic workers, ‘I want you to work for me June 1 to November 1. I can offer you better pay and benefits,’” he said.

Although the costs of the program are high, some of that money can be recouped through tax benefits, Fazio said. Employers can save about $250 a month in payroll taxes on each H-2A worker, which means costs of the recruitment and transportation are covered over a five-month contract.

WAFLA keeps a large database of worker information so that it can apply for visas and fill out I-9 employment eligibility verification forms. Employers can let the association know which employees it would like to rehire the following year and which it would rather not hire. About 90 percent of H-2A workers coming to Washington have been requested by employers.

Fazio said the H-2A program has a good reputation in Mexico. Every effort is made to protect workers from people who might try to take advantage of them. WAFLA checks repeatedly to make sure no one put their hand out for money, either during recruitment or during their trip to Washington State.

Supervisors play a key role in WAFLA, which offers supervisor-training classes to encourage crew leaders to treat guest-workers fairly and to overcome attitudes such as, “I came up here the hard way, and I’m going to make sure you experience that.”

Fazio said one of the biggest drawbacks of the program is that a farmer who has H-2A workers is required to hire any qualified domestic people who apply for jobs during the first half of the contract, and offer the same pay and benefits, including housing, which might not be available.

Proposed immigration reform should provide for a vastly superior guest-worker program in the future, Fazio said. He hopes that growers will be allowed to charge domestic workers a reasonable fee for housing.

“We’ve learned so much because farmers in Washington have stepped up, and we’ve learned things that are useful for our industry advocates when they’re pushing for immigration reform,” he said. •