KENNEWICK, Wash. — While tree fruit producers are increasingly using the H-2A visa program to hire more foreign guestworkers they should also emphasize it to hire more domestic workers, the director of the Washington Farm Labor Association says.
When employers hire H-2A workers they have to offer the same benefits to domestic workers, Dan Fazio, director of WAFLA, said. Those benefits include a minimum of $11.87 per hour in pay, the certainty of a contract, housing and transportation between the worker’s location and the farm if it’s greater than 50 miles. They also have to advertise for domestic workers.
“I think those are things we can sell to domestic workers,” Fazio said at the association’s Workforce Summit in Kennewick, Feb. 12.
“Guys from California have come up and said they will work if we guarantee them that stability and contract,” he said. It can be done for half the average of $1,200 per worker that it costs a grower to get H-2A workers from Mexico through WAFLA, Fazio said.
Of the approximate 55,000 seasonal workers hired annually in Washington’s tree fruit production, 6,090, or 11 percent, are H-2A workers. The number has been increasing rapidly in recent years.
It costs $4,500 to apply for a group of H-2A workers through WAFLA which covers advertising for domestic workers and U.S. Department of Labor and Citizenship and Immigration Service fees, said Roxanna Macias, WAFLA human resource program manager. It costs an average of an additional $1,200 per worker for WAFLA to handle recruitment in Mexico, border fees and transportation to the Washington employers, Macias said. But those costs can be shared among employers if they share the application and use of workers, she said. It can work well if the timing of need varies by employers sharing a contract, she said.
WAFLA uses CSI Labor Services, Durango, Mexico, to recruit workers in Mexico. The company recruits about 18,000 workers a year for H-2A visas in several U.S. states.
H-2A workers are not exempt from U.S. income taxes but employers are not required to withhold the taxes, said Michelle VanDellen, senior tax manager of Moss Adams, a certified public accounting and business consulting firm in Seattle. If no taxes are withheld, it’s unlikely workers will set aside money to pay taxes, she said. Moss Adams, at WAFLA’s request, files for extensions and prepares workers’ tax returns, VanDellen said.
Maltiz Law Inc., San Diego, assists WAFLA if legal issues arise at the border. Fazio introduced Javier Guerrero Gonzalez of the Mexican consulate in Seattle who assists with certain issues arising with H-2A workers once they are in the U.S.
After the sessions, Tim Welsh, new varieties manager of Columbia Fruit Packers, Wenatchee, told Capital Press that labor has been so short that Columbia is compelled to enter the H-2A program through WAFLA.
“Last year in the Quincy area, growers could have used 30 to 40 percent more workers,” Welsh said.
Columbia is putting up housing for 36 workers this year and will ramp up from there, he said. “I foresee a significant percentage of our workforce being H-2A in a few years,” he said.
Mark Stennes, a Pateros grower, said 14 of his 275-person work force last year were H-2A workers and that the number with increase to 42 to 56 this year. Using WAFLA to get the workers was a big help, he said. Besides more paperwork, his focus was training workers and crew bosses in picking, thinning and use of ladders, he said.
Using H-2A workers will increase his total payroll by $200,000 this year because he has to pay his domestic workers the same as H-2A workers, he said. But it’s worth it, he said, for peace of mind of having enough workers to pick fruit in a timely fashion.