OLYMPIA — The farm labor association WAFLA has transported H-2A-visa foreign guestworkers from Mexico to the Pacific Northwest by air for the first time.
A group of 18 workers recruited by WAFLA flew from Durango to Tijuana, Mexico on March 12 where they received their visas at the U.S. Consulate and spent the night. The next day they crossed the border on a charter bus and went to San Diego International Airport where they boarded a commercial flight to Seattle. They flew to Boise and then were on a charter bus for 30 miles to reach a farm in Treasure Valley where they are working.
WAFLA, formerly the Washington Farm Labor Association, has been transporting workers from Mexico to the Northwest by bus for six years.
“This is another way in which WAFLA is making the legal worker program better work for employers in the Pacific Northwest,” the association said in a statement.
Flights cut travel time from five days to two, are safer than buses, the cost is comparable and workers prefer it, the statement said.
The flights were a test run for plans to transport up to 100 workers per day by air starting in May, said George Zanatta, WAFLA chief operating officer.
While the trip went well it’s still being analyzed to determine how heavy to go forward with flights, he said.
“The challenge is the size of the group and locations and coordinating everything. You may have 75 workers and buses for 52. We have to bus at the border and the arrival point,” Zanatta said.
There are a lot of variables so it might make more sense to fly some groups from and to some locations more than others, he said.
“It’s a learning curve. We save on food and lodging expenses of busing people the whole way but air will actually cost a little more. The savings is on time,” he said.
WAFLA has an April 21 deadline for growers to place orders for workers for this year. Summer and fall harvests and harvest preparations are peak times.
WAFLA brought 10,527 workers up from Mexico in 2016 and will have brought 3,000 in so far this year by the end of March, Dan Fazio, WAFLA director, has said.
He expects to reach 12,000 by year’s end. Zanatta said well less than half will come by air.
The prospect of using airlines was talked about at WAFLA’s Workforce Summit in Ellensburg, Jan. 26, where a representative of Volaris Airlines spoke.