With a full-time focus on managing labor, contractors can alleviate most of the strain in finding skilled and timely labor. That insight came from a panel discussion during the Summer Conference for the California Winegrape Growers Association on Tuesday.

“I tell my grower clients: ‘I’ll take care of your labor needs. You stick to the farming,” said Duff Bevel, who runs the contracting service Bevel Vineyard Management. “We both end up doing what we do best."

The panel also included Earl Hall and Fred Beyerlein of Hall Management Corp and Mike Testa of Coastal Vineyard Care.

By turning farm labor contracting into a focused and specialized profession, the panelists said they were able to avoid complete labor shortages for farmer clients. The work required a full-time focus on arranging labor supply, while also anticipating farmer needs and timing. 

To attract quality workforce farm laborers, the contractors would be creative with benefits. They would offer robust health care support, at a cost of about $0.70 per hour, and consistent, high-quality work environments, with shade trailers and rest rooms exceeding the state-mandated minimums. This would establish a positive reputation for the contractors, as well as the farmers, attracting reliable and productive laborers. 

Despite the higher costs, the farm labor contractors said the trade-offs were worth the investment. Regulatory changes like decreased hours and week allowances under the ag overtime law, along with the rising minimum wage will make the work increasingly difficult.

Farm labor contractor panel

Labor contractor panel— left to right: Mike Testa, Coastal Vineyard Care; Duff Bevel, Bevel Vineyard Management; Earl Hall and Fred Beyerlein, both of Hall Management Corp

The contractors also invested in resources the workers may not have directly appreciated but would ensure an efficient operation. The contractors would organize the transportation to guarantee that the laborers reached the field sites on time.  

They noted that the contingent of illegal workers in the California ag labor market has been continually shrinking. Some move to non-ag sectors for work, while others have difficulty finding housing. Following the Wine Country Fires of 2017, more than 5,000 homes were lost, many of those being farmworker housing. 

Regulatory compliance – record keeping alone – continues to be a steadily increasing burden for employers as well.  Inadvertent, minor errors or omissions on a paycheck stub can quickly lead to costly class action litigation.

The panel concluded that while labor shortages are significant challenges for farmers, contractors can reduce some of the burden through full-time and efficient management and economy of scale.

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