Guest worker program provides labor, poses difficulties for SLO County growers

Jorge Avila earns $12 an hour picking crops as a guest worker in the federal H-2A program. From Sinaloa, Mexico, until November, he’s living in a room at at an old Budget Inn in Santa Maria that has been converted into housing.
Jorge Avila earns $12 an hour picking crops as a guest worker in the federal H-2A program. From Sinaloa, Mexico, until November, he’s living in a room at at an old Budget Inn in Santa Maria that has been converted into housing. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Jorge Avila spends his days picking lettuce and his nights in a motel bunk bed.

Avila’s job is not a glamorous one. He said through a translator that his back sometimes hurts from stooping over so much in the fields and that he must share a room with four other men in a converted Santa Maria motel.

But Avila is happy for the opportunity to support his wife and teenage daughters back in Sinaloa, on the western coast of Mexico. He said he can earn about $12 per hour working in California compared with $3 per hour in Mexico.

He smiles, but his dirty shoes and sweatshirt — a tear on one side has been neatly mended — are evidence of his hard labor.

Avila is a guest worker allowed into the United States through the federal H-2A program. Growers can use the program to help bring in foreign workers during a domestic labor shortage, although they’re required to provide food, housing and transportation for their employees. Most workers stay only for a season — Avila will be here until November.

The H-2A program has grown in popularity in recent years. California had 6,043 guest worker positions certified during fiscal year 2014, up from 2,629 in 2010, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor. The state ranked seventh in total H-2A positions, with North Carolina and Florida occupying the No. 1 and No. 2 spots, respectively.

Santa Maria had the most guest workers in the state with 800. The average wage offered was $11.33.


Guest workers in SLO County

Guest workers recently became an issue in San Luis Obispo County because of the construction of a controversial Nipomo farmworker housing development. Greg and Donna France of Mar Vista Berry were in the process of building seven homes to house about 112 H-2A farmworkers in the Mads Place cul-de-sac, near the 100 block of South Oakglen Avenue.

Neighbors were angry about the possible influx of farmworkers, and an April 6 blaze that Cal Fire has called “suspicious” destroyed one partially constructed home and damaged another. The Frances on Wednesday pulled their plans to build the housing as a result of the fire and the threats they said they’ve received. They’ve also offered a $10,000 reward for information on a possible arsonist.

Farmer Greg France reads a statement Thursday, April 7, 2016, about the fire that destroyed one house and damaged another in the Mads Place housing development he and his wife bought to house farmworkers in Nipomo.

Jason Resnick, vice president and general counsel of Western Growers, a trade association, said labor shortages in California are the result of fewer workers coming to the United States from Mexico, partially because of a crackdown on illegal immigration. This is prompting more growers to make use of the H-2A program, he said.

Resnick said he’d never seen a community react to farmworker housing the way Nipomo neighbors did. But he said housing for workers will continue to be a problem, especially for growers providing living quarters for H-2A laborers. A “cohesive farmworker housing policy” is needed, he said.

“As cities and suburbs expand into agricultural areas, it’s causing more tension between those who farm and those who don’t farm,” Resnick said.

Gail Wadsworth, co-executive director of the California Institute for Rural Studies, a nonprofit public interest research group based in Davis, said farmworker housing over the years has shifted from labor camps to more urban areas, mainly as a result of tighter government regulation of farmer-provided living spaces. Growers frequently don’t want to play landlord in addition to dealing with the other rules that govern their businesses, she said.

Why hire guest workers?

Many growers contract out the extensive paperwork and preparations that go into hiring H-2A workers. Tom Ikeda is co-owner of Ikeda Bros., an Arroyo Grande Valley company that primarily grows vegetables, including lettuce, broccoli and bok choy. He said his company last year hired eight guest workers through a contractor, which also arranged housing and transportation.

Ikeda said his workers live in homes in the Five Cities area. It’s best to house workers close to amenities such as grocery stores but not too far away from the fields where they’ll be working, Ikeda said. He didn’t want to specify exactly where his workers are living out of concern for their safety after the Nipomo fire.

Although it’s more expensive to hire H-2A workers because of the additional housing and transportation costs, Ikeda said having guaranteed labor made the program worthwhile. This season, he said, he plans to bring in 13 or 14 workers, who will “supplement,” or make up 20 percent or less of his labor force.

“In the future, the need is going to be greater for farmworker housing,” Ikeda said. “Labor is short, and it’s been short for a while.”

Guest worker housing solutions

In Santa Maria, some growers have found homes for their workers in buildings converted specifically for that purpose. Western Sky Properties is in the process of converting Laz-E-Daze, a former retirement center in the 1300 block of North Broadway, into Pasado del Sol, a housing facility for H-2A farmworkers.

Renovations continue, but general manager Ed Galanski said the farmworkers the facility has so far hosted in its 90 units have been good tenants. The facility has received fewer complaints while it’s housed H-2A workers than when it housed seniors, Galanski said.

The converted Budget Inn at the corner of Broadway and East Bunny Avenue, where Avila is staying, now also exclusively houses H-2A workers. On Wednesday, Avila and other men relaxed and chatted outside their rooms after a day in the fields. Some purchased chips and shaved ice from a small cart a vendor had pushed into the parking lot.

Hidalgo Cossio leaned over the balcony outside his room to eat his icy treat. Cossio, whose wife and three kids live in Baja California, said through a translator that this is his second stint as a guest worker — he previously picked crops in Yuma, Ariz. He likes California, he said, but in Arizona, it was easier to visit his family.

Improving the guest worker program

All the players involved in the H-2A program said they wished the guest worker process could be modified to make it less difficult to bring workers over the border.

Wadsworth called the guest worker program a form of “indentured servitude” because workers aren’t free to leave their growers if they don’t like the work or how they’re treated.

She said she’d like to see an open borders policy and the creation of a worker visa that would allow laborers to move around more easily and go home if they can’t find jobs.

Resnick said government red tape and delays turn some farmers off to using H-2A. Ikeda is currently the victim of such problems — he said his workers are right now being held up at the border because of government glitches.

“It’s time-consuming,” Resnick said. “The process is a lengthy one, and it’s prone to delays.”