A possible solution to migrant-worker housing took over the lobby of the Pasco Red Lion on Thursday. Three men spent a few hours building an igloolike "Labor Dome," a 20-foot-wide, 12-foot-tall white dome designed to house four to six people.
A possible solution to migrant-worker housing took over the lobby of the Pasco Red Lion on Thursday.
Three men spent a few hours building an igloolike “Labor Dome,” a 20-foot-wide, 12-foot-tall white dome designed to house four to six people.
The dome, made by Alaska-based InterShelter, was designed as housing for emergency situations.
But when Shawn Mattoon, of Kennewick, bought into the company in 2007, his agricultural roots helped sprout the concept of using the dome for migrant farmworkers.
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“The biggest thing I want to see is migrant workers have sustainable housing,” Mattoon said as he stood inside a panel of the dome that was under construction.
He and his crew were assembling the dome — a project Mattoon says takes less than four hours with two people, a ladder and a few tools — in preparation for a presentation to Sunrise Rotary group.
Rotarian Claude Oliver invited Mattoon to speak to the group.
Oliver, a former Benton County commissioner, has worked on migrant-housing issues for several years and said the domes are the first good option he’s seen.
He praised their compactness, easy assembly and durability.
The domes were patented in 1979, Mattoon said.
And the shell has been approved for temporary worker housing by the state Department of Health, said Lisa Salmi, executive manager of the Migrant Farmworker Housing Program.
Farmers who opt to use the domes still need to submit floor plans, bathroom arrangements and more, she added.
And that’s InterShelter’s next step.
The company is working with other firms to develop plans for purified water, bathrooms and showers, electricity and other components to meet state requirements.
Then Mattoon and his team plan to put together housing packages and get approval from state agencies so growers would know their migrant-farmworker housing met standards.
“Right now we need a grower to step up,” Mattoon said.
Housing for migrant farmworkers became a major state priority about 10 years ago when former Gov. Gary Locke included $40 million for the issue in his 10-year capital budget plan, according to the state Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development (CTED).
And that funding has been key to developing short- and long-term solutions to the problem, said Janet Abbett, Farmworker Housing Program manager for CTED.
The department has committed $76 million in state and federal resources to the development of farmworker housing since 1999, she said.
“In the past few years, people have come around to realize we all need to contribute to this issue,” she said. “If we don’t have housing for workers, then we can’t get the labor that we need to pick the fruit.”
Despite gains made in recent years, there’s more work to do, some say.
“It’s really bad,” said Dan Fazio, director of employer services with the state Farm Bureau.
About 50,000 seasonal workers are needed to complete the state’s harvesting work, he said.
“They’re only here six months per year. To house someone for six months per year is really tough,” Fazio said.
Before regulation of temporary farmworker housing, farmers did what they could to offer shelter, water and electricity, he said.
But because the need for seasonal workers is likely to continue long into the future, Fazio would like to see investment in more permanent housing for those who visit to pick cherries, pears, apples and other crops.
“Everyone’s like, ‘What do farmworkers want?’ Why don’t we just treat farmworkers like people?” he said. “If people like houses, I think farmworkers like houses, too.”
Farmer-owned apartments and homes are one solution for migrant-farmworker housing in Pasco, said Mitch Nickolds, inspection services manager for the city.
“I think there’s been an excellent effort made on all levels … to identify and capsulate and dissect the problem to the extent that we know where the need is and how great the need is,” he said. “What we don’t know is how to give it that shot it needs to solve the problem.
“The best solution we’ve found are the (agencies) that will work with property owners to overcome obstacles to traditional housing.”
Mattoon said he sees the domes as a long-term solution because they’re easy to assemble, take down and store, they’re durable and they’re a one-time cost for farmers.
The bottom-line price is $12,500 for the standard dome shell.
The cost goes up from there with the addition of the floor, insulation, a solar-powered heat pump and other amenities, Mattoon said, which will be part of the packages in the works.