Pear packer starts using H-2B

Blue Star Growers, Cashmere, Wash., employees more than 300 workers this time of year to pack pears. For the first time it is hiring H-2B-visa foreign guestworkers because of being short on labor.

CASHMERE, Wash. — It’s crunch time for pear packing at Blue Star Growers Inc., a grower-owned cooperative, in the heart of Washington’s Wenatchee Valley and the heart of the state’s pear production.

From September through December, 300 to 350 workers pack more than 2 million, 44-pound boxes of pears, some for immediate sales, but mostly for storage and sales through the year.

What’s new this year is the co-op’s first use of H-2B-visa foreign guestworkers to help get the job done.

“We’ve had trouble filling crews. We even tried a training school for two years, but we still weren’t getting what we needed,” says Dan Kenoyer, Blue Star general manager.

This season, working through WAFLA, formerly the Washington Farm Labor Association, Blue Star gained U.S. Department of Labor authorization to hire up to 40 H-2A-visa workers from its member growers at the end of the picking season and employ them as H-2B workers in the packing house.

H-2A is the federal foreign guestworker program for seasonal agricultural jobs. H-2B is for non-agricultural jobs.

Blue Star hired its H-2B workers for Oct. 1 through Dec. 21, enabling them to return home to Mexico for Christmas.

“They’re already here and know our growers. We’re counting on a large portion of them coming back next year as needed,” Kenoyer said.

Rather than H-2B, packers can use H-2A if more than 50 percent of the product packed is from the company’s own operation.

Unlike H-2A, there is no Adverse Effect Wage Rate to ensure wages don’t adversely affect employment opportunities of domestic workers. However, the U.S. Department of Labor sets minimum wages by type of work and geographic location.

It’s about $13 per hour versus the $14.12 AEWR in Washington, said Dan Fazio, WAFLA director.

Also unlike H-2A, employers do not have to provide housing for H-2B workers but most employers help workers find affordable housing, Fazio said.

As with H-2A, employers do provide transportation from and back to the worker’s country of origin.

Blue Star hired its H-2B workers through a contract with WAFLA separate from the workers’ prior H-2A contracts. Housing is taking a variety of paths. Some workers are staying with family or friends and Blue Star is working with growers who have housing, said Brett Holman, Blue Star production manager.

While others have inquired about it, no other tree fruit packing sheds in Central Washington are using H-2B and two use about 150 H-2A workers, Fazio said.

As with H-2A, employers using H-2B have to show they have tried to hire domestic workers and can’t get enough and they have to hire domestic workers who apply within a certain time frame of hiring the foreign workers.

Hiring 10 H-2B workers directly from Mexico through WAFLA costs $1,781 to $2,000 per worker but that can be reduced by up to $700 by hiring workers already in the state as H-2A workers, a WAFLA information sheet says.

Blue Star packs 16,000 to 20,000 boxes of pears daily on two packing lines that run six, 10-hour days. Pears go straight into Controlled Atmosphere storage in bins from orchards. They are taken out and packed into 44-pound cardboard boxes for better storability. They go back into CA storage and are brought out and repacked into different packaging as needed for sales through the year.

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