Sergio Marquez, a Wapato-based apple grower, doesn’t make a big deal about paying more to get the apples picked in his 240-acre orchard.
“It’s OK. I’m getting my job done, even if it’s more expensive,” the owner of Marquez Farms said.
While more apple growers are turning to foreign workers procured through the federal H2-A guest worker program, there are still small- and medium-sized growers like Marquez who don’t use it.
Cost is the biggest deterrent. Employers are required to cover the workers’ travel costs to and from their home country, related paperwork and housing for the duration of their employment. A grower can spend a few thousand dollars on a guest worker before paying the prevailing wage of $15.03 an hour.
The H2-A program is expected to bring upward of 30,000 farmworkers to Washington state this year.
Not using the H2-A program means growers have to contend with the local job market. There, growers aren’t only competing with other growers, but other nonagricultural employers that offer less-taxing year-round positions, said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, a Yakima-based organization that assists and represents agricultural employers on labor and employment issues.
“You really got to work it, you got to have a plan,” he said. “You don’t put a sign by the road and hope.”
Marquez, in fact, doesn’t bother with signs. He said he’s had success retaining workers and taps into contacts who can spread the word about available jobs in his orchard.
He employees 50 or more during the weekends and is usually at around 40 employees during the week. That should be enough for the duration of the harvest.
Mike Saunders, principal at Apple King, has around 200 workers for 1,000 acres of apples that will be picked over the coming months. The number of workers will increase as other varieties, such as Red Delicious, are ready for harvest.
Saunders thought about using H2-A for the first time this year, but when the size of the crop came in smaller than expected, he decided to take a chance on the local market.
“If we can avoid (H2-A), we’ll avoid it,” he said.
One benefit of more growers using H2-A is that fewer are competing for local workers, Gempler said.
“But it’s not a perfect match for all the jobs. You still have to compete for a crew,” Gempler said. “You have to communicate with your employees what you’re paying and entice them to work for you.”
Some growers advertise jobs with organizations such as WorkSourceWA.com, said Michelle Smith, employer engagement analyst for the South Central Workforce Council, which aims to develop the local workforce in Yakima, Kittitas, Klickitat and Skamania counties. The job board also offers a Spanish-language option.
Many timely job listings, including those for apple harvest, are also posted on bulletin boards at the WorkSource Yakima office in Union Gap.
Smith said other growers are also turning to employment and operations agencies that do not only recruit and find workers but also take care of other tasks, such as payroll and safety training.
Santiago Alejo, business development and staffing manager for BBSI in Yakima, which offers management services to small businesses, said he usually finds workers who are seeking work for just a few months before moving on to the next place. Those travelers are often a good fit for a seasonal apple harvest position.
So far, BBSI hasn’t had problems fulfilling growers’ labor needs for the upcoming harvest.
Regardless of the recruiting methods, there is one thing that will get attract workers: Good pay.
The increased use of H2-A has resulted in apple growers across the board paying more.
Marquez, the Wapato apple grower, increased his hourly wage from $12 an hour to $15 this year. Competitive wages don’t only help him retain workers, but those workers also end up recruiting new workers.
“They bring their friends,” he said.
Like Marquez, Saunders of Apple King has increased wages in recent years. Workers are required to be paid at least minimum wage, but the piece rate has increased, giving workers additional earning power.
“If you’re a good picker you should be making $15 to $20 an hour,” Saunders said.
The availability of steady work from August through mid-November is what keeps some workers coming back, Saunders said. Some workers are also contacted earlier to do other orchard work, such as pruning and thinning.
“They’re up here to work and they work hard,” he said.
Saunders, however, is concerned about the hit his company’s margins could take over time if labor costs continue to rise and prices don’t rise along with them.
As the harvest continues in the next couple of months, the cost and availability of labor may influence what a grower picks — or doesn’t pick — and when it’s picked, said Tim Kovis, of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.
Some growers may prioritize varieties that get a better return, Kovis said.
“It’s an ongoing moving target as harvest progresses,” he said.