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(Editor’s note: The original version of this story incorrectly quoted Rob Valicoff, president of Valicoff Fruit Co., and principal partner in the Inn, as saying Zirkle Fruit Co., of Selah, used the hotel for H-2A workers this year. Valicoff was referring to Les Zirkle, a family member who operates his own orchards and is not in business with Zirkle Fruit Co. The company says it did not rent rooms at FairBridge. We regret the error.)
YAKIMA, Wash. — A hotel in Yakima that has been mostly converted to seasonal farmworker housing could eventually house 900 farmworkers as demand takes off, its principal owner says.
That could happen if Republicans maintain control of Congress in the Nov. 6 election and pass immigration reform that includes mandatory E-verify (electronic verification of employment eligibility), says Robert Valicoff, principal owner of FairBridge Inn & Suites and president of Valicoff Fruit Co. in Wapato.
Industry and government estimate 50 to 70 percent of domestic seasonal farmworkers are illegal immigrants. Mandatory E-verify coupled with foreign guestworker reforms would greatly increase the already growing number of foreign guestworkers, Valicoff reasons.
The 65-year-old, third-generation tree fruit grower was one of the first in the state to use H-2A-visa foreign guestworkers in 2006 as he began to experience and foresaw an increasing shortage of domestic workers.
The company farms 1,700 acres and averages 1.5 million, 40-pound boxes of apples annually but produces about 35 to 40 percent of the state’s apricots.
The company’s orchards and packing plant operate with 220 year-round employees and, with seasonal help, peaks at 400 employees during harvest from August to early November.
“About 95 percent of our seasonal workforce is now H-2A through WAFLA (formerly the Washington Farm Labor Association). It’s spendy but working. Without it we would be in a world of hurt,” Valicoff said.
He estimates his total labor costs increased 25 to 30 percent when he became fully invested in H-2A. That’s due to higher wages, more paperwork, employer-provided housing and employer-provided transportation locally and from and back to Mexico.
Valicoff built housing with 96 beds for H-2A workers two years ago at a cost of $13,500 per bed or roughly $1.3 million. He needed more housing and decided it would be cheaper in the long run to buy FairBridge Inn & Suites, 1507 N. First St., in Yakima.
A showcase in its early years, the large hotel had fallen into disrepair and financial hardship.
Borton Fruit, of Yakima, bought it for $3.2 million in 2017 to use if for farmworker housing. Borton invested in repairs and then decided it didn’t want to continue, Valicoff said. First Street Investments, of which Valicoff is principal partner, bought the hotel from Borton last spring for $4 million and spent $800,000 to $1 million in repairs, Valicoff said.
With new H-2A housing on farms now costing $15,000 to $20,000 per bed, Valicoff figures the hotel will cost 50 percent less if 620 beds are utilized by farmworkers for six to seven months.
WAFLA contributed “substantially” to renovations in exchange for a $12 per night rate for H-2A workers of WAFLA members and first right of refusal on all beds. Other farmworkers pay $14 per night. It is open to foreign and domestic farmworkers.
Borton, Stadelman Fruit LLC in Zillah, Les Zirkle and others growers along with Valicoff Fruit and WAFLA utilized 580 beds for farmworkers this season, but now that’s dropped to 240, Valicoff said.
Of the 200 rooms, 115 have been converted into bunk rooms of four to six bunks for farmworkers and 85 rooms remain available to regular hotel guests. It could be converted to all farmworkers if there is demand, Valicoff said.
The hotel cafeteria provides breakfast and dinner and sack lunches for workers for $12.26 per day that is deducted from their pay per federal H-2A regulations. There is a laundry and eventually likely will be a sundries store and Mexican bank branch. There’s also a bar, two pools and a 420-seat ballroom.
WAFLA held an open house at the hotel Oct. 17 to show it to Yakima area growers. Jim Doornink, a Wapato grower and chairman of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, was among those attending.
Rob Nalle, of Simplicity Homes, which builds H-2A housing, was also at the open house. He said he likes FairBridge because no one housing solution fits everyone.
“I’m a calculated risk-taker,” Valicoff said. “Several years ago, I could have gotten the hotel for $1.3 million or $1.5 million. I should have then but I couldn’t get my buddies to go in. If we have 600 guys here for six to seven months we can make it work and I’m pretty sure it will be fuller than that.”