YAKIMA — Despite their increasing presence in Yakima Valley fields and orchards, bringing H-2A workers here is far from simple.
Growers must show a need for foreign workers due to a lack of available domestic employees, and once that is accomplished, the recruitment, training, paperwork and transport of H-2A workers can be a complicated process.
Joe Martinez and Norma Encinas of Cierto, a company that helps growers with all steps of the H-2A process, discussed changes and challenges for the guest worker program during a Wednesday morning presentation at the Washington State Tree Fruit Association's annual meeting at the Yakima Convention Center.
Martinez, CEO of the Tacoma farm labor contractor, said his company brings about 1,000 H-2A workers to Washington state each year, with some working for Yakima Valley growers, such as Hansen Fruit Co.
"This has become the predominant way for folks to fill their labor needs," Martinez said of the H-2A program.
H-2A is technically the name of the visa that allows a foreign national worker to enter the United States to work in agriculture for a specified amount of time (the "A" stands for agriculture; there are also H-1B and H-2B visas for other types of foreign employees).
Employers are required by federal law to cover H-2A workers' inbound and outbound transportation, housing and meals, and they are subject to the same wage and workers' compensation laws as domestic employees, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
They are also subject to state laws such as overtime rules, which in Washington will soon no longer have an exemption for agricultural employees. Martinez said a strict 40-hour work week could have an impact on the use of H-2A workers, who if paid hourly, receive the Adverse Effect Wage Rate, an amount higher than Washington's minimum wage.
Besides potentially changing the number of H-2A workers needed to avoid overtime, the strict 40-hour work week might lessen the desire of foreign laborers to work in Washington state, Martinez said.
"You bring workers here for a specific period of time, and while they're here, they want to work as much as possible," he added.
Another issue regards gender equity, or at least the absence of gender discrimination. It's an interesting one for H-2A workers, who are overwhelmingly male, Martinez said.
If more women are recruited as H-2A workers, separate housing for female workers — or family housing — would be required from employers, which would be more costly to provide, he noted.
Encinas, H-2A program director for Cierto, said the gender of the workers can depend on the crop being harvested. For example, more women work in strawberry fields than in the apple orchards.
Regardless of the higher wages (the AEWR is expected to increase from $16.34 per hour to $17.41 next year) and possible costly legal requirements of H-2A workers, much of the harvest simply wouldn't happen without them, Martinez said.
It's an issue for large and small growing operations, as Maria Rodriguez, executive director of Rural Community Development Resources in Yakima, told the Herald-Republic in July.
Rodriguez and staff from the Center for Latino Farmers, one of RCDR's three main programs, have been working with small farmers and land operators about the situation. In all, the center has 800 contacts, including those interested in becoming agricultural producers, she said.
"We know that the shortage of workers has existed for several years," Rodriguez said. They (small farmers) can't pay higher wages (of H-2A workers). They don't have enough resources to be able to pay them more or bring in these workers to help them."
One possible solution would be to create a co-op among small farmers interested in hiring guest workers, Rodriguez said.
Companies such as Cierto add an additional cost by recruiting, training and transporting workers to farm fields, while also obtaining their work visas and completing other paperwork. These services cost between $800 and $1,200 per worker, Martinez said.
The high cost of H-2A workers hasn't reduced their use, however. Martinez estimated that of the almost 2.6 million U.S. agriculture workers in 2021, about 300,000 of them were H-2A, nearly 12%.
"Undocumented workers are being phased out, and the available number of domestic workers is falling," Martinez said. "I think (H-2A) is becoming an increasingly important part of the agriculture workforce."