LAKE OSWEGO, Ore. — If agricultural employers feel like they have a target on their backs, Tim Bernasek can sympathize.
Farms and ranches are subject to wide scrutiny when it comes labor, said Bernasek, an attorney who focuses on agricultural and natural resources law at the Portland firm Dunn Carney.
Bernasek discussed labor unrest with farmers at the Wafla H-2A Workforce Summit on Jan. 16 in Lake Oswego, Ore. His presentation dovetailed with two other morning sessions about training managers to mitigate conflict with workers, and how mediation and arbitration can help to avoid more costly lawsuits.
In Oregon, Bernasek said, the union Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, or PCUN, is still a major player in the Legislature, though on-farm organizing appears to have diminished significantly over the last few decades.
PCUN is the largest Latino organization in Oregon, with 6,500 members.
The Oregon Employment Department also has a state workforce advocate, Fernando Gutierrez, whose job is to visit farms that hire migrant and seasonal workers to ensure all laws are being followed. Farms that hire foreign workers through the H-2A visa program can expect Gutierrez and his staff to conduct both a scheduled field visit and an unannounced field check, Bernasek said.
While no one can avoid unannounced field checks, Bernasek said farmers can and should post where inspectors need to check in first when they arrive — potentially avoiding problems with violating certain provisions of the Food Safety Modernization Act, or Good Agricultural Practices rules.
“That’s the resolution that we have come up with,” Bernasek said. “We need to keep an eye on this.”
Legal aid services such as the Oregon Law Center can pose challenges, Bernasek said, taking an aggressive posture on litigation. Unlike lawyers that work on contingency, legal aid is federally funded, providing less incentive to settle cases quickly and racking up court expenses for the farmer.
“That’s why it’s important to try and avoid that situation in the first place,” Bernasek said. “They are very active in this state.”
To avoid getting to that situation, Jeff McLean, regional field services manager for Wafla, said it is important to hire and train managers who can clearly coordinate worker interests with the farm’s goals, while treating employees with fairness and respect.
Employees are no longer just working for a paycheck, McLean said.
“They want fair treatment, and they want to be respected,” he said. “(Money) is an underlying element that motivates us. But what we do at work makes a difference.”
In an era of increasing technology and cellphones, McLean added that news about on-farm conflicts can travel quickly if managers are unable to defuse the situation.
Meanwhile, Wafla rolled out its new mediation and arbitration agreement services last November and has started enrolling members. The goal is to resolve disputes outside a courtroom, which will be quicker and far less expensive for farmers.
Gregg Bertram, a professional mediator and founder of Pacific ADR Consulting in Seattle, helped Wafla to develop the agreement. He said litigation gets in the way of business, and takes away control of the outcome from farms.
“We have done our best to anticipate the kinds of disputes you may encounter,” Bertram said. “It is very important to communicate this agreement to workers at the inception of their employment.”
A second Wafla workforce summit for growers is scheduled for Jan. 30 at the Wenatchee, Wash., Convention Center. For more information, visit www.wafla.org.