The Meyers Housing Facility by Fresh Harvest features dormitory-style housing for up to 366 workers. ( Courtesy Fresh Harvest )

As growers in California’s Salinas Valley turn more and more to the H-2A temporary worker program to harvest their crops, new farmworker housing projects are springing up to support that trend.

The second phase of the Meyers Housing Facility just opened in the first week of April in nearby King City for up to 150 workers in the federal temporary worker program.

Fresh Harvest, the H-2A arm of Heber, Calif.-based labor contractor Scaroni Family of Cos., one of the nation’s largest labor contractors and participators in the H-2A program, built the first phase in March 2017. It holds up to 216 workers. 

The project was an adaptive reuse of a former tomato processing plant that closed around 15 years ago.

Founder and president Steve Scaroni said the company, which also rents hotel rooms as temporary housing for seasonal workers for its grower and shipper customers, decided to build the housing because the H-2A program in the Salinas Valley area is expanding about 30% every year.

“Housing is our glass ceiling to be able to grow and meet the demand for more H-2As that grows every year,” he said. 

“So, we felt we had to start building our own housing, because the motels and what not that we are using, while they are legal to use, were never quite designed for this use.”

The Meyers project, with its soaring ceilings and austere décor, is simple, dormitory-style housing with common eating and lounge areas, bathrooms and showers that houses up to 366 workers. 

During the area’s busy harvesting season between April and November, customers pay Fresh Harvest for the housing and the transportation to and from work sites, which is required under the H-2A program.

The Meyers project will be a better solution for customers than motels, he said.

“It will be much more cost effective,” Scaroni said.

Salinas Valley growers and shippers form Fresh Harvest’s largest customer base out of all the states it operates in, which also include Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Oregon and Washington, and most recently, the East Coast, Scaroni said. 

The company brings more workers into the area each year, and each year, existing customers ask for more workers and new customers sign on.

That’s evident in several area growers, which said they have just started using the program.

Last summer, Salad Savoy Corp. in Salinas hired eight H-2A workers for the first time because it wasn’t able to hire a full crew the previous year. It just hired 16 for this spring season, said CEO Seth Karm.

“H-2A was having that comfort level where you can have guys you can bank on,” Karm said. 

“You can have the best crops in the world, but if you can’t actually harvest them, it’s not worth anything.”

This year is the first for Salinas-based Coastline Family Farms, which grows broccoli, cauliflower, iceberg and leaf lettuces, parsley and cilantro.

“We will participate in H-2A for first time this year in Salinas,” said salesman Mark McBride. “It’s definitely becoming more commonplace all the time.”

Naturipe Berry Growers, also in Salinas, uses H-2A workers but hasn’t changed the numbers, said Craig Moriyama, director of berry operations.

“We do still have a consistent base of local employees we use,” Moriyama said. “That helps. What you do with H-2A is you supplement.” 

But, he added, “We still feel it’s not 100% viable. That system needs to be modified.”

The Grower-Shipper Association of Central California, an education, representation and advocacy org in Salinas, has noticed the sharp increase in the program’s use.

Jim Bogart, president and general counsel, said one cause is an aging domestic workforce.

“Farmworkers that have lived here are transitioning out,” Bogart said. 

“Their numbers are becoming fewer, and so that workforce has by necessity needed to be supplemented by the H-2A program.” 

And that is likely to rise, he added. As a result, more agriculture-related businesses are taking on the role of developer, Bogart said.

Salinas-based The Nunes Co. recently built with partners the 600-worker Casa Boronda complex in Salinas for a reported $20 million. 

And Salinas grower giant Tanimura & Antle Inc. built the $17 million, 800-worker Spreckels Crossing project in Spreckels in 2016. 

While that was originally built for H-2A workers, the company said enough domestic employees expressed interest in traveling there from other geographical areas for the harvesting season that it’s now for employees only.

And more projects may be on the horizon.

Scaroni has filed applications to develop two more housing projects in Salinas, including ground-up construction, as well as in other Western states, he said.

As of Sept. 30, the Department of Labor’s Office of Foreign Labor Certification received more than 11,800 applications for H2-A workers, up nearly 17% from the previous year. Those applications resulted in 242,762 positions certified. 

California accounted for 7.8%, the fifth largest single state percentage. 

First-quarter 2019 applications were up nearly 23% from same period a year ago, according to the office.