Grape growers and vineyard management firms are among Ag industry’s leaders in the North Bay when it comes to providing worker housing and hiring H-2A guest agricultural workers. They include: Ferrari-Carano Vineyards, Seghesio Family Vineyards, Hirsch Vineyards, Barra of Mendocino, Bevill Vineyard Management and Dutton Ranch, to name just a few.
Steve Dutton, president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, and owner of Dutton Ranch, said labor shortages are very real. He is an avid supporter of the H-2A visa program and has hired some 85 H-2A workers over the past five years. This is his 11th year in the H-2A program. “Without farm workers, we would be out of business. Ten years ago Mexican job seekers would drive up to our property looking for work.
Today 94 farm workers among Dutton’s 122 employees are housed in three modern bunkhouse units built to comply with strict state and federal safety and accommodation guidelines, such as all stainless steel commercial kitchen appliances, separate rooms for up to four occupants, a dining area, plus multiple showers and spacious rest room facilities. Dutton built his first bunkhouse in the early 1970s, and is planning to add a fourth.
He charters two 45-passenger buses and travels to Tijuana to pick up employees and bring them back to Sebastopol. He will repeat the journey at the end of the 10-month season ending in January to take them home again.
Dutton’s workers earn $13.18 an hour to start, or about $130 a day, with the opportunity for piece- work or time-and-a-half during harvest. Farm workers in Mexico earn far less, some say as low as 14-15 Pesos per hour, equivalent to one U.S. dollar per hour (or $10 per day) during a 10-hour workday. He said when paying workers by the ton (piece-work) they can earn between $20 to $25/hour or more – and no one complains.
The $13.18/hour minimum figure is the Adverse Effect Wage Rate (AEWR) which employers are required to pay H-2A employees (the program requires payment of the higher of the AEWR, the prevailing wage determined by the prevailing wage survey conducted by EDD, or the statutory minimum wage. AWER is almost always the highest of the three.) This year it is $13.18/hour. According to Little, this process escalates, rather than depresses, wages.
While Dutton learned to cope with the H-2A paperwork and process, he wishes a less cumbersome way could be found to serve as a legal path for foreign workers to be employed here.
For some employers seeking H-2A workers, the process seems lengthy, however, in the latest Office of Foreign Labor Certification report, dated September 30, 2017, 97.6% of completed H-2A applications were resolved within 30 days before the start date when workers would be needed.
A “completed” H-2A application is defined as one containing all the documentation (e.g., housing inspection report, workers’ compensation, recruitment report) necessary for the OFLC certifying officer to issue a final determination.
“Hiring foreign workers was harder under President Obama’s tough immigration enforcement, but it has become easier over the past two years. It still takes too long to get job and visa approvals. I had to ask Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office on three occasions to help push our contracts through three government departments, and even with this assistance, our workers arrived two months late in 2016. My hope is that Congress and our new administration will develop an effective immigration policy that will work for growers, our workers and our nation.”
Duff Bevill, owner of Bevill Vineyard Management, hired 24 H-2A workers this year. He also owns 120 acres of grapes and said as the cost of doing business, including labor, continues to go up growers may be forced to move toward mechanization.
“I believe more vineyard owners will adopt more mechanized harvesting since hand picking adds hundreds of dollars per ton to the cost. Equipment has become more sophisticated without damaging the fruit. Among the last holdouts for mechanizations are those growing pinot noir and zinfandel grapes.”
He noted that with the pending AB 1066 half hour per work day reductions, and shorter workweeks, farm workers will be not be able to earn as much money as before, unless government increases the minimum wage or offers a subsidy program to help close the gap. AB 1066 decreases the current 10-hour overtime threshold over four 30-minute steps annually and will decrease the weekly overtime threshold over four, five-hour steps annually from 2019 to 2022.
However, the bill authorizes the governor to temporarily suspend the scheduled phase-in of overtime, starting in 2019, until full implementation of phase-in overtime requirements – or January 1, 2022, whichever comes first — if the governor suspends minimum wage increases based on economic conditions. Any suspension could last only one year.
For Kevin Barr, owner of Redwood Empire Vineyard Management (REVM), when it comes to hiring workers, he says, “If we have to E-verify the status of every farm worker, we are in big trouble, since nearly half of the 2.5 million farm workers in the U.S. are here illegally.”
He asks to see an employee candidate’s social security card and driver’s license. “I hope we don’t have to scan and send these documents to federal authorities. We haven’t done this yet.”
Barr hires hundreds of workers, and admits they are getting more difficult to find. “We have to hire workers from Mexico. There is a finite amount of labor here, and most U.S. citizens are not willing to do this work – although we continue to search for domestic employees before hiring foreign labor.”
While not hiring H-2A certified workers today, he is planning to take advantage of this program soon, and is currently in the process of building his first H-2A qualified bunkhouse for up to 37 employees at a cost between $900,000 and $1 million. “How many farm families can afford to provide million dollar bunkhouses?” he said.
According to Barr, most vineyard clients are not willing to pay overtime, so the only solution is to hire more workers, if you can find them. There are stories about growers who lost crops – and money — for lack of workers, or due to delays in getting workers approved and certified to work in the U.S. In Sonoma and Napa Counties, we manage to get the job done without leaving crops in the field.”
While mechanized harvesting has increased, reports indicated that upward of 200 crop categories are still picked by hand, especially fresh produce. At the same time, a lot of innovative tech has entered the industry, such as onboard sorting systems used by grape growers for high-end wines, however, many grapes are still picked by hand. He pays his workers by the ton for grapes handpicked during the harvest.
In the vineyard management business, Barr says workers are still needed to prune, trim, remove suckers, position shoots and perform some leafing operations still done manually.
In CFBF’s conclusion at the end of its labor availability survey report, it states that farmers in California and the U.S. have been forthright about the fact that they rely on a largely immigrant workforce, since efforts to hire U.S.-born employees on farms have remained unsuccessful.
CFBF surveys in both 2012 and 2017 show that the federal government needs to move rapidly toward allowing a legal, immigrant workforce in the U.S. to guarantee that future immigrants who desire to work in American agriculture will be allowed entry.
CFBF strongly opposes a mandatory E-verify requirement on employers until a satisfactory immigration path for agriculture is realized. CFBF also cautioned Congress that fixes around the edges of H-2A won’t alleviate the current employee shortage.
Farm Bureau and other organizations will continue to work with Congress to create a secure, flexible, market-based agricultural immigration program.