EAST WENATCHEE, Wash. — A $15.03 minimum wage for H-2A-visa foreign guestworkers in Washington and Oregon continues to pressure seasonal agricultural wages upward and pickers, whether foreign or domestic, are making good money.
Andy Handley, 56, a second-generation grower in East Wenatchee, says his cherry pickers averaged $35 per hour this season when their piece rate pay is converted to an hourly rate.
“Don’t let anybody say growers are taking advantage of our labor force. These guys are paid well, making more money than me a lot of times and they know it, too,” Handley says.
“They know we have a perishable crop restricted by time and weather. They take advantage of that. They know we need guys and that labor has been tight and we need to get the fruit off in two to three days,” Handley says.
Fast pickers are “way above” $35 per hour in cherries and want to average over $30 per hour in apples, he said.
Handley is a small grower with about 300 acres of apples and cherries in East Wenatchee, Quincy and Mattawa.
He still hires only domestic workers, avoiding the added expense of H-2A-visa foreign guestworkers.
“We run 40 people picking cherries, almost half are women. It’s getting harder but if you pay right and treat them right, you get a lot of return pickers,” Handley said.
He keeps 25 workers year-round and hires more for harvests.
Typically, workers are paid by the hour for pruning and other tasks while earning more lucrative piece rate pay to pick fruit when speed and time is of the essence.
Handley pays new hires a minimum of $13.75 per hour, which is $1.75 per hour above the state minimum wage of $12. He said he’s pressured upward by the $15.03 hourly minimum for H-2A workers.
He pays his year-round workers more than $13.75 and provides some of them with housing.
Any of his workers can leave and go to an orchard using H-2A workers and make the same $15.03 minimum that H-2A workers make.
“Some of our guys choose not to do that because they don’t like working along side H-2A workers. It’s a cultural thing. A lot of times they are from different regions in Mexico. My guys don’t like working with them because they feel intimidated by them,” he said.
It’s easier to find pickers when there’s plenty of fruit on trees because they can pick faster than if there’s less fruit.
“Guys don’t like to pick Rainier cherries because we require them to slow down to reduce bruising,” Handley said.
Pickers are thinking volume to make money, so even when he pays them twice as much per 20-pound lug to slow down in Rainiers, it’s hard for them to do so, he said.
A standard rate is $3 to $3.25 per lug on red cherries, but Rainiers can range from $6.50 to $10 per lug, he said.
In apples, pickers like the newer high-density, dwarf-tree orchards with the least ladder work for ease of picking.
“Our lowest, easiest picking Red Delicious is $21 per bin and that goes to $35 on other varieties,” Handley said. “You have to stay super competitive, paying on the high end and having lots of fruit because pickers talk on cell phones and shop for good orchards.”