Outside the orchard, guest workers participate in English classes led by the Okanogan County Literacy Council at wafla’s Riverview Meadows farmworker housing. (Courtesy wafla)
Outside the orchard, guest workers participate in English classes led by the Okanogan County Literacy Council at wafla’s Riverview Meadows farmworker housing. (Courtesy wafla)

It is well established that the Pacific Northwest is not able to fill tens of thousands of critical farm labor jobs with domestic workers to harvest local, healthy foods. The growing, harvesting and processing of these products drive rural economies throughout the region. The use of the H-2A program to fill these vacant positions continues to grow, along with federal and state regulations to manage the program.

Government regulations focus on everything from worker safety in the fields to safe housing and from worker wages to transportation. These types of issues are the focus of a regulator’s perspective and also become a key focus for employers who need to abide by these rules. But employers need to think about the worker’s perspective, too. Together, employees and employers both benefit and thrive with shared success. What can we do to help workers be successful in their jobs and in their lives? 

Enrique Gastelum
Enrique Gastelum

First, we must understand where these guest workers are coming from. 

Many of these workers are from poor, rural areas with little or no economic opportunity. Landing an H-2A job can be compared to winning the lottery. H-2A workers currently receive no less than $17.97 per hour in Washington and Oregon, have free housing, transportation to and from their country and to the job site each day, and have guaranteed contracts. This means that workers earn up to 13 times more per hour in the United States doing the same job they would have at home. An H-2A job represents a generational opportunity to lift them and their families out of poverty.

Now imagine traveling with a group of strangers to a country thousands of miles away. You have little knowledge of where you are going and little or no support network, and this may just be your first formal job.

At wafla, we specialize in helping growers contract with workers to come to the U.S. on H-2A and H-2B visas. We have identified best practices that can help any grower with foreign or domestic workers demonstrate a commitment to treating workers with dignity and respect. Employers who buy into this commitment know it grows worker trust and can lead to a very productive workforce. 

Hospitality and orientation

Workers arrive at farmworker housing at all hours of the day or night. After their 24- to 36-hour bus ride, it would be a kind gesture for employers to have food options available upon arrival. Additionally, having some basic housing kits with bedding, eating supplies and toiletries can show you care about the personal needs of workers within hours of their arrival. 

Within the first day or so, it is important to have someone who is bilingual welcome the workers, provide them an orientation to their housing and set the stage for successful communication. Workers may need help to understand what it means to live in the U.S. You can’t assume that everyone will understand safe food storage or how to work appliances. After all, garbage disposals are not as common in rural villages. We need to show workers where the cleaning supplies are and about their basic uses.

Let’s not forget that many of these workers are coming from different regions with different cultural expectations from each other, let alone other domestic workers. There are many opportunities for miscommunication, so we recommend spending time talking through their contract, explaining what to do in emergency situations and clearly describing the standards of this co-living environment.

The reason workers come here is to earn money for their families. They may need help to learn about options to send money home. They might not be aware of their U.S. tax obligations, how to read a pay stub (even if it is in their native language) or understand what a reimbursement check covers. These are all opportunities for employers to help their workers be more successful and also minimize wage and hour complaints because a worker doesn’t understand how they were being paid. 

Community partners

It is not uncommon for farms to provide spaces for relaxation, or even a soccer field. For example, we also work closely with community partners who help workers celebrate their faith, if they choose. At the Fairbridge Inn farmworker housing in Yakima, Washington, the local diocese provides Mass and Bible study for workers. They also conduct classes for English as a second language. It helps to create community with workers and gives them some grounding when far from home.

“Each worker has a family back home and leaves their country to harvest the food that feeds our families. The Diocese of Yakima established an additional parish extension at Fairbridge Inn for the workers during the summer. The men could not go to the local parish for the services, and the diocese decided to take the church services to them,” said Father José De Jesús Mariscal Guzmán. “Allowing the workers to learn English, build fraternity, socialize, pray, attend Mass, develop skills and healthy lifestyles, focus on their dreams and, most importantly, have the opportunity to have someone to listen to them while away from their family and home.”

Creating an environment for success extends far beyond work hours. Most workers would like to work as many hours as possible. However, new agricultural overtime rules in Oregon and Washington may limit how much they can work, making these after-hours efforts even more important to help employees stay busy and out of trouble. This extra effort can help minimize the sort of potential problems that could put a worker’s visa in jeopardy and cost your operation a key employee. 

For many of our member farms, and many others, the same workers come back season after season and are almost like family. Most growers are already using these best practices or have best practices of their own. Growers that have committed to such people-support practices are realizing the benefits of a happy and productive workforce. 

We talk a lot about “confidence in labor.” A farmer should be confident that they have the labor available to grow and harvest the crop. That street runs two ways. Workers need to have confidence in their employer not only as a place for a paycheck but, for guest workers, also as a support for them when here in the U.S. Creating this confidence will foster a productive relationship for many years to come. 

by Enrique Gastelum

Enrique Gastelum is the CEO of wafla, an agricultural labor management nonprofit based in Lacey, Washington. He can be reached at egastelum@wafla.org