Good Fruit Grower

May 1

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18 MAY 1, 2014 GOOD FRUIT GROWER T he 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 sup- portive state government, are finding ways to make the cumbersome and complex program work for them, he says. In fact, Zirkle Fruit Com- pany 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 Washing- ton 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 grow- ers of a number of crops, including row crops, watermelons, and blueberries, as well as tree fruits. Because of this, it can eas- ily 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 pro- spective workers through radio announcements or by following employer leads, although some employers do the recruitment themselves. Anyone who pre- viously 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 ben- efits, housing, and round-trip transportation, and guarantee at least 75 percent of the wage specified in the contract even in the event of crop failure. "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, Washington is the fourth largest employer of H-2A workers in the country after North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. by Geraldine Warner "They get the dignity of being here legally." —Dan Fazio Labor Growers make H-2A WORK 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. PHOTO BY TJ MULLINAX

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