Using farm labor contractors can be beneficial for both employers and workers, as they can turn sporadic seasonal work into full-time employment, says Dan Fazio, executive director of the Washington Farm Labor Association.
Contractors are widely used in California, but are much less common in the Pacific Northwest, where they don’t always have the best reputation. There are some fly-by-night contractors, he said, but his association is hoping to compile an “A” list of contractors who can provide workers.
“We’re trying to upgrade the reputation of farm-labor contractors and get more contractors who will work with farmers and guarantee that their services are going to be exactly what the farmer needs,” he said during a recent work-force seminar.
Hiring workers through a farm-labor contractor can work well in areas where different crops are grown, because, typically, contractors will move their workers from crop to crop to keep them busy through the season.
“It doesn’t work as well when everyone wants their cherries picked,” Fazio said.
Mike Atkinson, owner of Atkinson Staffing in Hermiston, Oregon, said some crops are more time sensitive than others. Some have a 60-day window during which workers can be moved to a different job and then back again. Atkinson said he tries to develop teams of workers who know what they’re doing and screen out those who would not be a good fit for the grower. “We like to have a relationship with the grower,” he said.
Atkinson said growers should figure on paying about 20 percent on top of the actual cost of the labor and warned that if a labor contractor has a package that sounds too good to be true, it probably is. “Those people are not working for free,” he said.
Though working with a contractor costs more, Atkinson said growers should consider what they don’t have to do. Workers are employees of the contractor, so growers don’t need to file quarterly reports or make out their paychecks. There’s no exposure because of questionable I-9 forms, and they don’t need to fill out W-2 forms for people who leave.
Jon Warling, who operates Mar-Jon Labor LLC in Othello, Washington, said the responsibilities of the labor contractor include recruiting, hiring, training, and supervising the workers, and completing all the employment documents. He charges growers either 17 percent of the payroll amount or a fee per acre.
A contractor in Washington must be registered with the U.S. Department
of Labor and also be licensed by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries. He advised growers to check the Department of Labor and Industries’s Web site to confirm that a contractor is licensed. Even a contractor who only refers workers to an employer, and doesn’t employ them, needs to be licensed, Warling said.
The employees must be paid by the contractor and receive a pay stub showing the total pay, pay rate, hours worked, and deductions, just as they would if they were employed by the grower. The contractor must furnish to the grower, and anyone else on request, complete pay records including the names, check numbers, and gross earnings for each employee, as well as the rate of pay—both hourly and piece work. The records should also show deductions to ensure they have not charged workers excessively for housing or transportation. If there are deductions, they need to be explained to the grower. Workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance are both paid at the contractor’s rate, not the grower’s.
Warling suggested growers ask for the information when they receive the invoice, and before paying it. That will eliminate problems of contractors who cannot pay their employees until they are paid by the grower.
The grower also has some responsibilities, he said. The grower should clearly establish and negotiate the rate of pay, job description, and other terms of employment with the contractor. Warling encountered one grower who tried to pay the labor contractor’s employees less than his regular employees, to make up for the extra he had to pay the contractor. That doesn’t work, Warling warned, because the workers have cell phones and will soon find out.
Since the contractor is responsible for the employees, he or she needs to be notified when pesticides are applied to the orchard so they know to keep the workers out.
Some growers say they don’t want the contractors to supply a supervisor because they want to use their own, but Warling said most of the time that will not work out, particularly if the contract employees are taking the jobs of the supervisor’s friends or relatives.
“As we move them from crop to crop, workers develop a relationship with the supervisor,” he said. “You need to budget in a supervisor from the contractor.”
Warling said his employees can work to the grower’s standards, as long as there is good communication and the chain of command is clear.
“Any worker—I don’t care how experienced—if they have three different people come by within an hour and a half and give them different instructions, pretty soon they will say, ‘To heck with that. We’ll do it any way we want,’” he said.