Inside temporary foreign worker housing: Checking in on H-2A in Yakima
Inside temporary foreign worker housing: Checking in on H-2A in Yakima
by Jasper Kenzo Sundeen
Workers line up in front of an Intermex wire transfer desk in the lobby of the Fairbridge Inn on North First Street.
Many are sending money to their families in Mexico, said Eduardo Garcia and Juan Carlos Herrera, two workers eating their lunch at a table nearby. The workers living at the Fairbridge Inn during the summer are in the H-2A program, a federal program that allows U.S. agricultural employers to bring in foreign labor for temporary, seasonal work.
The inn is one of several hotels converted into housing for those workers, whom their employers must house, transport and, in this case, feed.
Garcia and Herrera work packing apples. They’re here on a three-month contract for the second year in a row, they said, and hope to get a longer, six-month contract next year. Garcia and Herrera can make more money in Yakima than in Jalisco, where they both live.
Outside, Alvaro Perez and Jose Luís Gonzalez agree. They sit in the shade in the Fairbridge Inn’s parking lot. The two are from Michoacán, which neighbors Jalisco along Mexico’s Pacific Coast.
Perez has done landscaping work in Colorado, he said, but he’s still getting used to picking apples in Yakima. He’s 20 days into a three-month contract and the work isn’t bad, he said; the dollar is worth more than the peso.
Agricultural employers and advocates say workers like Perez, Gonzalez, Herrera and Garcia are essential during a shortage of labor during peak times such as harvests. Critics of the program are worried H-2A workers are replacing domestic labor with a workforce that is more beholden to its employers.
The H-2A program, which allows employers to bring in foreign agricultural labor if they cannot find enough domestic workers, has grown in the last few years. This year, 38,644 H-2A workers have come to Washington, according to data from the state’s Agricultural and Seasonal Workforce Services Advisory Committee.
That’s 4,000 more than this time last year, according to that data. Many of those are here in the Valley – Yakima County led the state in H-2A workers as of June, according to data from the U.S. Labor Department.
The rising number of H-2A workers has led to expanded infrastructure to host those workers and growing attempts to regulate and reform the program.
That can be seen at the Fairbridge Inn. The hotel on North First Street was purchased by the Valicoff family in 2018 and converted into H-2A housing. The Fairbridge and the nearby Econolodge, which was purchased a year ago, can house over 1,300 workers.
Brett Valicoff and Lindsay Zerr, who manage the housing, work hard to provide clean, comfortable accommodations for workers. It’s a unique setup, Valicoff said of the hotel, which has been retrofitted to house workers rather than tourists.
“This is our standard and what we want to do. In this Valley, we rely so much on temporary workers,” he said. “We take a lot of pride in keeping this place spick-and-span and clean.”
Edgar Franks, political director for independent farmworker union Familias Unidas por la Justicia, has seen the other side of the coin. He said he’s met workers living in substandard housing and is concerned with the power exerted by employers.
“I think the rapid growth of H-2A is concerning,” Franks said. “We’re concerned growers are using the H-2A program to displace local workers.”
Inside the Fairbridge Inn
Zerr has worked at the Fairbridge Inn through multiple changes of ownership. After years of work in the hospitality industry, she and much of the staff decided to stay on when the hotel was converted to H-2A housing.
She likes it, she said. Each day is different and there are new challenges for organizing temporary worker housing, like meeting state and federal regulations and organizing three meals a day for up to 1,000 people.
The H-2A program only allows for temporary workers – they cannot stay year-round. That means the Fairbridge can house hundreds of H-2A workers during peak harvest periods in June and late August or none over the winter.
At first glace, the Fairbridge looks like a typical motel. There are long hallways, carpeted floors and concrete balconies. But there was plenty of work that went into converting the property to worker housing, Valicoff said.
Use of the building has grown over time, he said. Now, 17 agricultural employers contract with Valicoff to house workers at the Fairbridge. Operations have expanded so much that the nearby Econolodge was purchased when it came up for sale.
Each room hosts four workers and has a pair of bunk beds and a locker for each worker. Workers have to follow housing rules, including doing chores and not drinking alcohol.
A new, commercial kitchen was installed and a restaurant area has been turned into a laundry room. A fence was built outside for occupants’ safety.
Feeding workers was one of the biggest challenges, Valicoff said. H-2A rules say employers must provide meals or kitchen facilities.
At the Fairbridge Inn, workers are charged $21 a day for three meals. They leave at all hours – some work night shifts, some work on nearby farms or far away farms. Zerr is constantly coordinating with employers to make sure lunch is packaged and delivered.
The food is not bad, Perez said, though sometimes it can use more salt.
Workers can still walk out into the city and buy their own food; the nearby Tacos Riconsito received praise from several workers. Perez said that during the week, he tries to stay in and rest, but he’ll go out on the weekends.
Zerr said many workers return year after year – she sees a lot of familiar faces. Perez hopes to be back. Like Garcia and Herrera, he'd like a longer contract next year.
There’s a lot of regulation of temporary worker housing, Valicoff said. Workers need a certain amount of space, private lockers and laundry facilities. There are mandatory visits from the state Department of Health, the Yakima Health District and the Department of Labor and Industries.
Zerr and Valicoff said they’ve worked hard to improve the space, adding a small market, a game room and collaborating with the local Catholic diocese to offer religious services and classes.
The Fairbridge Inn represents a unique worker housing enterprise; there is little that compares, Valicoff said. In 2023, it won an award from the national Council of Agricultural Employers.
Part of a larger network
The workers at the Fairbridge Inn are a small slice of the thousands who come to the United States every year. Employers apply annually for contracts ranging from a few weeks to eight or nine months, said Enrique Gastelum, CEO of Wafla.
Wafla is a nonprofit labor association based in the Pacific Northwest and part of a network that helps employers across the country navigate the complex process of bringing in H-2A workers. Gastelum estimated that Wafla is involved with 300 contracts and 18,000 workers nationwide.
Wafla helps employers create job requests, fill out applications, draw up contracts with workers and apply for visas with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. It works with partners who recruit workers in Mexico and transport them to locations in the United States.
“Wafla puts in a lot of resources in supporting employers and educating them on rules and regulations,” Gastelum said.
Why is H-2A so popular?
“It’s tracking ahead of Q2 last year and it’s gone up the last three years,” Gastelum said of the H-2A program.
It’s expensive to recruit, transport and house foreign workers, so why do employers engage in it? The answer to that question can depend on whom you ask. Many employers, like Valicoff, say they rely on H-2A workers to run their farms.
“We continue to see a shrinking supply of domestic labor,” Gastelum said. “Agriculture has this deep need for short-term employment, peak hours.”
It can be difficult to find local workers who are willing to only work for a few months out of the year, Gastelum said. He believes the agricultural industry is undergoing a demographic shift, with more farmworkers settling into communities rather than migrating as the seasons change.
Gastelum spoke of his own experiences. His parents were farmworkers. He was a farmworker when he was young but left the industry to pursue other opportunities.
Critics like Franks and FUJ are concerned that the reliability of those workers is a problem, rather than a boon. Workers are not free to move between employers while in an H-2A contract, and if they are fired or they leave, they are sent home.
Franks is concerned that employers will try to replace domestic workers with H-2A workers that they have more control over. Employers are required to advertise positions to domestic workers, but there are instances of alleged favoring of H-2A workers.
Before it sold its facility earlier this year, Sunnyside-based mushroom farmer Ostrom was accused of discriminating against domestic workers by the state Attorney General's Office.
Gastelum said Wafla and many employers work hard to meet program requirements and create a positive experience for all involved. He said housing has improved through the years as H-2A employers gain familiarity with it and new regulations are added.
“We want to make it beneficial for the workers, so they can be comfortable,” Gastelum said.
Issues do crop up, though. This year, for example, Ostrom paid $130,000 in fines for violating H-2A wage and housing standards in Sunnyside.
“If an employer is not knowledgeable about H-2A and how to run it well and don’t have good partners to rely on, it can go south very, very quickly,” Gastelum said.
Those are issues critics like Franks and FUJ have raised. Franks noted the power imbalance between workers and employers, concerns about the complaint process and the implications of widespread H-2A usage on organizing.
“You have to be really not caring to see the imbalance and discrepancy of power in the H-2A program,” Franks said.
He pointed out that H-2A workers that are tied to contracts aren’t operating in a free labor market. They don’t have the power to leave at will and look for other employment opportunities without leaving the U.S.
To address workplace concerns, employees must lodge a complaint. That can be intimidating for workers, who face a foreign language and legal system.
“Not everybody has access to lawyers or knowledge of labor law,” Franks said. “From the get-go, it’s hard to make investigations happen.”
Gastelum said that H-2A employers do have an incentive to meet requirements and not risk a critical workforce.
“If their housing is not up to standard and workers are complaining, they put in major jeopardy their ability to produce their fruits and vegetables," Gastelum said.
Wafla tries to tackle recurring issues with its employers, he said, and sees a 90% return rate to housing at the Fairbridge Inn, of which it is a part owner.
“We’re a big proponent for making sure housing for workers that are brought in meets federal OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) standards,” Gastelum said.
In the long term, Franks said, a larger H-2A workforce could make worker organizing more difficult for unions like FUJ.
Unionizing and organizing can provide workers with a platform to address workplace grievances and advocate for legal changes. Those efforts face systemic obstacles when it comes to farm work, though, some of which are based in Jim Crow-era federal policies.
FUJ is an independent union based in the Skagit Valley, but its organizers have assisted workers across the state and been vocal in calls for increased farmworker protections and overtime pay. With fewer local workers, Franks is concerned that organizing will decrease.
“Nobody would be able to challenge employers because they have workers that depend on them,” Franks said.
He’s unsure if H-2A can be reformed, he said, but he hopes to see an agricultural economy that is more family-based, where foreign, undocumented or domestic workers are treated equally.