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Immigration Reform vs. Vineyard Labor Needs

Napa growers get useful numbers and advice for coping

by Jim Gordon
Napa, Calif.--Vineyard managers in Napa this spring are bringing in workers from California's Central Valley literally by the busload, Hal Huffsmith observed to an audience of about 200 at Apr. 19's "Ahead of the Curve" seminar organized by the Napa Valley Grapegrowers (NVG). Those "mobile laborers," as Huffsmith, senior vice president of vineyard operations for Trinchero Family Estates, called them, are doing the ever-more-vital manual jobs of spring suckering and shoot thinning.

But how much are those workers earning, and how likely is it that they will be available at harvest time this fall and again next spring? Huffsmith and another speaker of the 11 who were shoe-horned into a substantive 5-hour morning session at Copia, addressed vineyard labor issues from different perspectives.

Huffsmith said that the larger issue of immigration reform, which President Bush supports, is an emotional one. He played a video clip showing pundits Bill O'Reilly and Geraldo Rivera shouting at each other while debating the issue on O'Reilly's Fox network television show. "When Geraldo Rivera looks like the reasonable one in an argument, then you know you've got an emotional issue," Huffsmith said. (Watch the clip at

Possibly there will be no immigration reform passed by Congress until 2009, Huffsmith predicted, since the issue is too highly charged to be resolved quickly, and since major legislation like this rarely gets approved in a presidential election year (2008). Until then, Napa growers can likely keep their labor needs covered by doing what many are doing now, he said: Paying more than the average, using the mobile labor force when needed, moving toward mechanization and talking to their members of Congress about the winegrape industry's need for a guest worker program that's not onerous in fees and paperwork.

Professor Robert Yetman of the UC Davis Graduate School of Management presented results of the 2007 Napa Wages & Benefits Survey done by UC Davis in cooperation with the NVG. He said that median wages for vineyard workers were $10.50 per hour last year, according to the survey, and that crew supervisors were paid a median of $15.50.

It beats flipping burgers, but is this compensation enough to keep the work force returning from the Central Valley and from Mexico at a time when immigration and labor laws are being tightened, and possibly dramatic reform may be imminent? Huffsmith said that during last year's harvest, most growers in Napa and Sonoma were apprehensive about whether their labor would materialize, but that it did, prompted at least in part by the prevalence of higher wages in Napa and Sonoma counties compared to most of the state.

The wage survey backed up this observation. The median raise in 2006 for Napa Valley vineyard workers was 7.4%, and for supervisors it was 6.5%. This compared to a 3% to 3.5% estimated increase in the cost of goods and services, Yetman said. "The survey gives a good ballpark representation of the situation in Napa Valley," he said, being based on 47 responses out of 300 surveys sent out.

Contract wages, the amounts paid to independent crews, were higher than those paid directly by vineyard or winery owners. The median hourly pay for contract workers was $12.90, while for contract supervisors it was the same as grower-employed supervisors, $15.50 per hour.

Yetman said workers in Napa vineyards earn a significant premium over the California average for agricultural labor. The premium in Napa is $2.53 per hour or 32%, and for supervisors it's $2.43 per hour, or 19%.

Cash bonuses went to 73% of the workers covered by the survey, and a sizeable portion of them received at least some benefits. For workers, 55% got medical benefits of some kind, 30% got dental coverage, 12% got vision coverage, 9% got housing help, 63% got paid vacation and 24% could use employee-sponsored 401-k accounts to put away some of their money for retirement, though it was not known how many employers contributed to these retirement accounts. The percentage of supervisors who got these benefits was higher for each category.

During the seminar, NVG's executive director, Jennifer Kopp, also introduced the following speakers: Cyril Penn, editor of Wine Business Monthly; Bill Turrentine and Brian Clements of Turrentine Brokerage; Bill Cascio of distributor Glazers; Shannon Staglin and Tim Keller of UC Davis Graduate School of Business; Paul Wagner of Balzac Communications, Lee Hudson of Hudson Vineyards, Bob Steinhauer of the American Vineyard Foundation and Dave Whitmer, Napa County Ag Commissioner.

A schedule of all upcoming NVG events can be viewed at
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