Apr 3, 2018
Rotten eggs, steak knives add to labor’s hidden housing costs

When an apple growers think of the many ways decay and mold can cost them money, most wouldn’t put a rotten egg high on that list, but that is the reality created by the current ag labor situation.

“We’ve had the Department of Health (DOH) come out to inspect and they find eggs left out on the counter and they write you up,” said Troy Frostad, director of human resources at Mount Adams Orchards of Salmon, Washington.

Mount Adams Orchards, like many other operations, provides housing for its workers with H-2A status. That comes with some obvious, large costs like digging a well and pouring a foundation. However, it hides other smaller, but still significant expenses, such as bedsheets and plates. Providing housing also comes with added risks and liabilities, which are not as straightforward as on-the-job hazards. An example: Are higher insurance rates worth it to provide workers with steak knives to cut their food?

Frostad joined a panel of three other growers at the 2017 meeting of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association held in early December. They reviewed their experiences providing housing within the H-2A program, what surprised them and some tips for making the program work in their operations.

One of those tips was that even though housing is expensive, it pays to do it right. Dain Craver, chief horticultural officer for Royal Bluff Orchards, Royal City, Washington, said the business paid attention to infrastructure when it installed its first working housing units, and is happy with the decision to go with stick-built houses.

“I just think if you’re doing this, you’re in the apple industry for a lifetime, maybe your kids’ lifetime. You put in orchards to last 20 or 30 years, you should put a house in that’s going to have a lot of wear and tear from these workers that’s going to last 20 or 30 years,” he said.

Jon Wyss

Jon Wyss with Gebbers Farms, Brewster, Washington, said that when the operation’s first round of workers was on their way to the farm, they realized that while the housing was ready, the details weren’t, including bedding.

“We went to every Walmart in a 300- mile region and had every sheet you could imagine buying,” said Wyss, a member of the U.S. Apple Association’s board of directors.

Along with that he bought plates and bowls and everything the workers needed to eat meals. Wyss said it’s also important to remember that those are not one-time costs. Sheets and bowls need to be replaced often.

That also led to a serious discussion with Gebbers Farm’s insurance company about how much the business wanted to pay in insurance rates to allow its workers to have sharp knives. He said while that may sound odd, anyone providing housing should have a similar talk with their insurance provider.

Dan Fazio, executive director and CEO of the farm labor group wafla, said it’s also important to draw a distinction between what H-2A requires and what growers should provide to have a good working environment.

“The regulation doesn’t say anything about utensils, but if you don’t have them you’ll have a riot,” he said.

His group provides a checklist of required items and even has employee ambassadors to facilitate relationships between workers and their landlords, i.e. growers.

Wyss said he employs camp managers to help oversee the significant investment that is the farm’s housing. Those mangers help extend the life of the worker housing units and help keep the units clean and in his opinion, pay for themselves five times over.

Cleanliness can also save money in other ways. Frostad said the DOH has the authority to inspect worker housing and actually has written up the orchard for allowing eggs to be left out on the counter. He said the decision whether to hire a cleaner or not comes down to whether a grower wants to risk getting written up by the DOH.

Craver said the orchard does bring in someone to help keeps things clean but also encourages workers to keep their own quarters clean.

Fazio said that King Fuji Ranch of Mattawa, Washington uses a metric that helps it determine if it wants to invite a particular worker back next year and a piece of that score comes from how clean the worker keeps their living area.

All of the growers said the key to making a relationship work when providing housing is treating the workers with respect. Craver said he wants to make sure the housing the business provides is of a level that he would want to sleep in.

“The glass is half full. They are here helping you, so make it a good experience for them,” he said.

Frostad said when done right the workers do love their experience. For example, his operation has a returning group of Jamaican workers who provide a night of home-cooked Jamaican food for a nearby town every year and have put 50 girls through private school with the proceeds.

Scott Stuntz, FGN Contributing Writer

Above: Worker housing in Chelan County, Washington state. Photo: Chelan County

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