Sonoma County vineyard managers spend millions to build on-site housing for pickers

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Vineyard manager Duff Bevill put the finishing touches last week on the bunkhouse he spent more than $1 million to build for guest workers eagerly awaiting the chance to pick grapes and earn U.S. dollars.

At a cost of $28,000 per bed, the dormitory-style housing has 10 rooms that each can accommodate three or four workers. Amenities include washers, dryers, wireless internet access, a spacious stainless steel kitchen and bathrooms that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“We’ve got guys in Mexico waiting for that phone call,” said Bevill, owner of Bevill Vineyard Management in Healdsburg.

In two weeks, Bevill’s security supervisor, Rey Sanchez, will fly to San Diego, get on a chartered bus and head to Tijuana to pick up two dozen workers. He’ll spend several days processing each worker’s H-2A visa before bringing the group to Sonoma County. The visas are part of a federal guest worker program for the agriculture industry that, among other things, requires employers to provide housing for the workers.

Like other area grape growers and vineyard managers, Bevill has turned to the federal program because of a farm labor shortage that has worsened since the devastating 2017 North Bay wildfires. Providing housing is a burdensome requirement these days, given the county’s shortage of affordable homes and the steep cost of residential construction.

Compounding the challenges to house workers, grape growers must comply with new state overtime rules for agricultural employees. They are causing growers and vineyard managers to hire, and house, even more people to do work that was previously done with smaller crews logging overtime.

Steve Dutton, who co-owns family vineyard operation Dutton Ranch with his brother, Joe, said they provide housing to almost all of their workers, some of it subsidized. In some ways, that insulates his grape pickers from the pricey local housing market that was stoked by the infernos two years ago.

Dutton said he has 15 single-family homes mostly for his senior employees, such as foremen and tractor operators, and their families. The base rent for these homes is about $700 a month and goes up from there, depending on the size of a worker’s family.

“If the kids are out of college but still living with parents we up the rent,” he said. “Here on the ranch, we’ve supplied housing the whole time we’ve been in business.”

Adjusting to new rules

But now the Duttons and other growers will need more pickers. At the start of the year, the state began incrementally shifting from the traditional 10-hour workweek for farm workers to a regular 8-hour week. The transition will take place over the next four years.

Dutton said growers will be hiring more workers to complete the same amount of work that was previously done with overtime hours. With the farm worker shortage here, that means hiring more foreign laborers via H-2A visas — and construction of more expensive workforce housing.

Bevill said he started participating in the visa program three years ago, because of a labor shortage which became acute six years ago. He and other wine grape growers have sought to minimize the time and cost of building workforce housing by collaborating and sharing building designs that already have cleared the construction permitting process.

Housing for employees

Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, said 30% of grape growers provide housing for their employees, according to an industry survey the group conducted in 2017 before the fires. The group is preparing to do another survey focusing on housing, in part to get a sense of the fire aftereffects.

She said the vineyard housing in the area, often offered at below- market rents, includes guest houses, second homes and bunkhouses with dorm-style units.

After the October 2017 infernos, the winegrowers’ group foundation partnered with the Sonoma County Farm Bureau to launch a housing recovery fund for ag workers and their families displaced by the fires. The effort raised $1.3 million, half of which was used helping people with immediate recovery needs, such as making up for lost wages, paying rent and buying gift cards for food and other items.

Kruse said the goal now is to use the rest of the money to develop a more long-term response to the local housing crisis.

Meanwhile, housing advocates say rising rents for farm workers living in apartments and single- family homes off the vineyard properties has forced some of them to live in cramped conditions or leave the county altogether.

Ripple effect from fires

Natural disasters such as wildfires are indiscriminate in their destruction, but their aftermath disproportionately affected the most vulnerable low- income population, the advocates say. For example, vineyard workers, who often live on the community margins, were especially hard hit.

“People that left during the fires, they didn’t come back,” said Juan Hernandez, executive director of La Luz Center in Sonoma Valley, a community nonprofit that provides social services to the valley’s immigrant community.

Hernandez said the fires caused economic upheaval for many immigrant families who went several weeks without pay and were unable to pay rent and bills. Some were forced to move elsewhere.

Dwindling workforce

At Bevill’s new bunkhouse in Healdsburg, workers last week washed windows, vacuumed construction dust and assembled new beds.

“We passed the state housing inspection today, so the house is ready to go,” Bevill said Thursday.

Bevill said he turned to the H-2A via guest worker program because of local labor shortage that he began noticing eight years ago, long before President Trump began calling for more restrictions on immigrants at the border with Mexico. In the past, he said, locals used to drive up to his property looking for work.

“In the past eight years, there are fewer and fewer new faces in the workforce to complement and supplement the workforce that is permanent,” Bevill said.

The migrant flows of previous generations have dwindled, too, partly due to decades of restrictive U.S. immigration laws and policies. Many found themselves trapped north of the border, unable to freely cross back and forth, and were forced to settle in local communities, said Patricia Galindo, a client service coordinator for La Luz Center.

Galindo said in the past some migrant farmworkers would chase grape harvests from Washington state, through Oregon and California, to the Mexican border.

“Over time they were not able to do that,” she said. “Most who are undocumented have stayed here because they’re afraid that if they leave they can’t come back.”

Changing with times

Dutton, who has participated in the H-2A visa program for 13 years, said he has four dorm-style buildings that range from 10-bed structures up to 38-bed buildings. Last week, Dutton submitted plans to the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department, known as Permit Sonoma, for the construction of a fifth bunkhouse, similar to the one Bevill just completed.

He estimated the cost of completing the housing will be about $1 million due to the numerous requirements under the visa worker program, as well as the high cost of construction.

“I just drilled a well that was $35,000,” Dutton said. “It has to be a well that’s suitable for public water use.”

Kruse, leader of the county winegrowers group, said guest worker visas among county vineyard operations have almost doubled in five years, to somewhere between 400 and 500. And that’s only 5% of the total workforce needed.

The local wine grape industry requires a workforce of about 10,000 full-time and seasonal employees, she said, but the tally of available workers hovers at about 7,800.

“You have to provide housing and that’s really expensive here,” Kruse said. “We’re going to need to have some of that dorm-style housing or we’re not going to be able to bring employees here.”

Looking ahead

In another five years, she said the county ag industry will have between 800 and a 1,000 guest worker visas.

“But we may not be able to accommodate them because of the lack of housing,” she said.

For Cameron Mauritson, a partner with Mauritson Farms in Healdsburg, the labor struggle stems from a lack of affordable housing.

“We don’t have a worker shortage, we have a housing shortage,” said Mauritson, part of the latest generation of a family growing grapes in the Dry Creek Valley since 1868. “I can’t count on one hand the amount of employees I’ve lost in the past two years.”

Mauritson, who in 2018 built the same 10-room bunkhouse Bevill just finished, said he’s had longtime employees abandon Sonoma County for places like Oregon, where housing is free or a quarter of the price.

“It becomes really difficult to run a business when you have turnover based on things that are outside your control,” he said. “You want to provide a sustainable opportunity for both your business and your employees.”

Mauritson employs about 45 people, including 16 through the visa guest worker program. Though he has enough work in the vineyards to employ guest workers year-round, they can only be in the country a maximum of 10 months during a 12-month period.

Mauritson said the farmworker housing crisis here probably will lead to greater automation in grape harvesting, with fewer but higher paying jobs.

“But that’s a 20-year shift. That’s not something that’s going to happen in the next three to five years,” he said. “It’s just not affordable to build here.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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