SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

July 28, 2017

 

Guest worker visas a complex cure for vineyard labor shortage

 

By Esther Mobley

 

Edilberto Rico Álvarez wanted steady work.

Around his tiny town of Yotatiro (population: 363), in the Mexican state of Michoacan, employment would be there one day, gone the next. “I would do whatever work I could find,” Álvarez said. Day work came in cornfields sometimes, or wheat fields. Or resinando — collecting sap from pine trees.

From a full day’s work, Álvarez might earn 500 pesos, about $28. It wasn’t enough to support his wife and two children.

So in 2008, when Álvarez got a call from Joel González Rivera asking if he’d like to come work the harvest season in Sonoma County, he jumped at the opportunity. He would be coming to Seghesio Family Vineyards, where Rivera is the assistant vineyard manager, on an H-2A visa — a program designed to provide temporary, seasonal labor to U.S. agriculture.

That year was Seghesio’s first time using H-2A. The winery was just beginning to feel a labor shortage that has since, by just about all accounts, reached a crisis level. Worker turnover was getting out of hand: During the 2007 growing season, the winery had lost 150 workers. “At harvest, we could barely get to the fruit,” said winemaker Ted Seghesio. “We brought in 2,700 tons of grapes in seven weeks.”

When you’re making the sort of high-end wine Seghesio does, picking the grapes at just the right moment is crucial. Pick unripe, and the wine tastes thin and herbaceous. Wait too long, and the wine tastes like raisins. To charge $40 or more for a bottle of Zinfandel, as Seghesio does, you’ve got to get it just right.

La cosecha no para,” Rivera laughed: Harvest doesn’t stop.

 

Rural Mexico supplies as much as 90 percent of California farm labor, and has for decades, ever since the bracero program — H-2A’s brutal antecedent, in effect from 1942 to 1964 — cemented U.S. agriculture’s dependence on this labor source. Whether they come under a guest worker program or come on their own, the fact endures: Workers from Mexican states such as Michoacan, Oaxaca and Jalisco power American farms.

Vineyards have long been an attractive option for agricultural workers because of their high wages: In Napa and Sonoma counties, average hourly vineyard worker pay last year was $14.50 and $13.50, respectively.

But fewer workers are entering the U.S. from Mexico now. UC Davis researchers estimate that U.S. agriculture is losing labor from rural Mexico at the rate of about 11,200 workers per year. And those who are here are turning increasingly to hotels, restaurants and cannabis fields — jobs that can pay just as well as vineyards, but are much easier on the back.

Unsurprisingly, in the face of this labor shortage, H-2A applications have surged. When Seghesio first used the program, in 2008, 3,353 H-2A visas were issued in California. In the first half of 2017, there have been more than 11,300.

Under mounting labor pressures, it’s an obvious course of action. Yet H-2A is hugely underutilized by the California wine industry, which, despite generating $114 billion in economic activity every year, accounted last year for just 3 percent of the state’s H-2A visas.

Many grape growers consider H-2A’s bureaucratic hurdles insurmountable: Those include costly fees, piles of paperwork and the requirement to provide government-inspected housing to workers. It’s a burden that many smaller-scale vintners insist they simply cannot bear.

But as labor grows ever scarcer, will they have a choice? For vineyard workers, the H-2A visa represents safe passage from Mexico, legal work status, a good wage and guaranteed housing. Wine Country’s resident workforce no longer wants to do vineyard work, and the flow of undocumented workers coming from Mexico is quickly drying out. For many would-be vineyard hands — and for many of their employers — H-2A may soon be the only viable option.

“Without H-2A,” Seghesio said, “we couldn’t make this kind of wine.”

Mindy Allen won’t be using H-2A again. Allen runs Martinez Farming, a vineyard management company in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) that employs from 300 to 820 people at any point in the year. When she applied for H-2A visas four years ago, she estimates she spent $8,000 in legal and consulting fees in applications for 18 workers from Mexico. When she finally got her crew, they were able to work for her for only one week.

“We move on a daily basis from vineyard to vineyard,” Allen explained — a typical setup for a vineyard management company. But the visa prohibits multiple job locations. “The way the H-2A program is structured, you have to keep them in one field.” Allen’s company feels the labor shortage as acutely as anyone, but H-2A’s stringent requirements aren’t designed for her business model.

That’s hardly H-2A’s only restriction. Employers must pay for and arrange all travel expenses from workers’ homes. They must make a good-faith effort to hire American workers for the positions, posting job advertisements in multiple states — even though many employers have never had an American worker respond to the job postings. Housing for workers must meet strict requirements and be inspected by two government agencies.

“The housing is undoubtedly the highest barrier to entry,” said Jeanne Malitz, a San Diego immigration attorney who handles H-2A applications for many California grape growers.

Consider what it took for Seghesio to get Álvarez from Yotatiro to Healdsburg.

First, Rivera, Seghesio’s assistant vineyard manager, had to find him. Fortunately, he had met Álvarez once before, on a visit Álvarez had paid to family in Sonoma County; all it took was a phone call. But to find others, Rivera traveled to Michoacan on a recruiting mission. Job requirements: 18 or older; one month’s experience with wine grapes; ability to lift 50 pounds; not color blind (to differentiate white grapes from red); ability to stoop and bend. Applicants must pass a physical exam at the border, and must own or be eligible for a passport.

That first year, Rivera screened about 70 hopefuls. Forty were hired. “We all wanted to come,” Álvarez said. “More would come if they could.” (Álvarez has returned every year since, which is typical. According to Malitz, the return rate for H-2A workers is 95 percent.)

Once the visa applications had been approved — a process that can take more than half a year and cost thousands of dollars — Seghesio arranged for Álvarez and his new colleagues to travel from their villages by bus to Tijuana, where Seghesio put them up in hotels with food allowances while they interviewed at the consulate there. Once physical exams were done, visas secured and border-crossing fees paid, they began the 11-hour bus ride to Healdsburg.

Seghesio’s total cost per H-2A worker this year, before any wages were paid: $1,225. For some grape growers, that math is hard to swallow.

Others, meanwhile, object to H-2A for a rather simple reason: It puts the skilled, resident workforce that is here already at a disadvantage — something they say we can’t afford to do in the face of this labor crisis.

“Why turn your back on people that have helped build this country in the last 15, 20 years?” said Steve Ledson, owner of Sonoma’s Ledson Winery. “It’s not right.” Why should temporary workers, but not year-round residents, be entitled to housing, transportation and a higher wage than many resident workers receive, especially in regions where the H-2A’s minimum $12.57 per hour is above the going pay rate?

That’s precisely the logic behind Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposed “blue card” bill, which would allow farmworkers who have worked at least 100 days for two years in a row to earn lawful status and eventually to be eligible for permanent residency. But the measure, recently revived, looks unlikely to pass.

In the meantime, some grape growers say that hiring resident workers, some of whom may lack documentation, is not as simple as it once was.

“It’s not just labor we need; it’s legal labor,” said David Hirsch, owner of Hirsch Vineyards in Cazadero in northern Sonoma County, which started using the H-2A program four years ago. Hirsch believes that California wine’s long-standing dependence on undocumented labor is no longer tenable, as immigration enforcement has grown stricter.

“Up until 2010 or so, there was endless labor, but it was all illegal. We all knew that they were phony, but there was enough documentation to satisfy the authorities.” Wider use of E-Verify, a technology that validates an individual’s immigration status, among other enforcement measures, has made that previous situation nonviable, according to Hirsch.

It’s nonviable for many workers, too. Martín Garnica and José Hernández, two H-2A workers at Windsor’s Martinelli Vineyards, said that they had long wanted to work in the U.S. but were not willing to risk an illegal crossing themselves. Five years ago, they knew lots of people attempting to cross the U.S. border without documentation. Now, with fees to coyotes (people who smuggle others across the border) so high — $10,000, the going rate — and border conditions so dangerous, they know of no one attempting the journey.

They were aware, vaguely, of H-2A. “I knew someone who had gone, but I didn’t know how to get the visa,” Garnica said. “It’s not well known.” When, seven years ago, Martinelli foreman Lorenzo Villagómez showed up at the ranches where they were working in their native Michoacán, they were thrilled to be recruited. They’ve come back every year since.

Now among Martinelli’s highest-skilled workers, Garnica and Hernández are here on a 10-month stay. “It’s a little complicated,” Hernández said, “10 months here, two months home.” Living frugally, they send most of what they earn back to their families. During their two months at home, they don’t need to work.

Garnica has two children; he hates being apart from them. Hernández misses his girlfriend, who just finished cosmetology school. The H-2A visa permits them to go home for a vacation, which many workers take advantage of when there’s a slow week in the vineyards. But the trip isn’t cheap.

Still, when asked how he feels about his work, Garnica doesn’t hesitate. “If they keep giving me the opportunity with the visa, I will come every year,” he said.

Álvarez, for his part, considers H-2A a pretty good deal. “Here, I earn in a day what I would earn in a week in Mexico,” he said. Plus, “It’s better this way than $10,000 with a coyote.”

In a far cry from piecemeal resinando workin Sonoma, Álvarez works reliable, eight-hour days. He lives with 36 other men in one of Seghesio’s dorms in Geyserville, driving a carpool to the vineyard every day in a company-provided truck. For the past four years, his 21-year-old son, Enrique, has come to work for Seghesio, too; they’re roommates. On their days off, father and son go visit their relatives in Santa Rosa.

Always, their family back in Yotatiro is top of mind. “If I earn $1,000, I can send $600 back to my family,” Álvarez said. “It helps them eat.

“And while we’re here, everyone else in Yotatiro earns — the stores, everyone,” he continued. His wages, sent back home, help stimulate the local economy. “Forty workers are here, but 2,000 people benefit.”