Washington State is the third largest exporter of food and agricultural goods in the United States, including fruit, vegetables, wheat and seafood. Migrant workers play a vital role in the region’s $300 million agricultural industry; in the Skagit Valley alone, nearly half of the farm workers are from Mexico. Experienced field workers, irrigation specialists, seed experts and mechanics are essential to our state’s economy.
In recent years, a growing workforce shortage has created challenges for farm owners. There are currently two agricultural jobs available for every applicant across the country, says Miranda Driver, Marketing and Communications Director for CalAgJobs, an organization that works to connect farm businesses with employees. In California, the gap is even larger: four jobs exist for every applicant.
Understanding the Value of Injured Workers
With agricultural workers in such high demand, some employers are doing everything they can to keep them on the job, even if it requires modifying their duties. When one employee was injured at his Eastern Washington seed industry job recently, the company went out of its way to accommodate his needs and retain him.
“He’d been with this company for about eleven years and they have a great rapport,” says Ramon Pantoja, a Vocational Consultant with Single Handed Consulting. “He’d been an active employee for so many years and maintained a full work history without any gaps, despite moving from one location to another.”
After injuring his shoulder and tearing his bicep, the employee was unable to resume his regular duties, one of which was stacking sacks of seeds on pallets for shipment. At first, due to some confusion with the medical team over his job responsibilities, it appeared he would be able to fully return – but it quickly became apparent that wasn’t possible.
Pantoja connected with all parties to achieve the best outcome, convincing the doctor to release the employee to return to work and helping the employer to identify alternative duties until he recovered. “Maintaining the employer/employee relationship is always one of our priorities,” he says. “We were able to look for other options in the meantime, even if those were just modified hours.”
Solutions for Injured Workers in Washington State
In the vocational claims world, the ideal result is an injured worker returning to their job of injury with the same employer. If it’s possible for that to happen immediately, all the better; if not, vocational counselors will explore light duty options with the employer, looking for ways the employee’s job could be modified. Return-to-work plans might include rehabilitation plans developed in conjunction with the worker’s medical team and the return might occur in phases.
Failing that, counselors will look for new roles the worker could perform within the same company based on previous work experience, known in the industry as ‘transferable skills.’ Even then, the job may require modification, depending on the nature and extent of the injury. Single Handed consultants like Pantoja can help employers design other options, including modifying the original job to accommodate an injury, looking at transferable skills that allow the employee to work in a different department within the same company, or retraining the worker for another role.
When it comes to on-the-job injuries, migrant workers are particularly at risk. Fear of deportation or losing their jobs makes them more vulnerable than their counterparts in other professions. According to the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, three of the industries that employ some of the highest percentages of migrant workers - agriculture, construction and transportation - are also the most dangerous. Migrant workers typically have lower salaries and fewer rights.
For this particular worker, a language barrier would be an additional challenge if the company let the worker go rather than modifying his role. “He’s primarily Spanish speaking, which makes it more difficult,” says Pantoja. “If for some reason he couldn’t go back to the employer and they couldn’t accommodate for any type of restrictions, then you’re left with someone who has limited English and perhaps limited education. That makes retraining difficult because there are fewer options.”
Moving Towards a Win/Win Solution
Ideally, the employee will be able to return to his job of injury. For now, he’s not allowed to lift anything over 25 pounds and continues to attend physical and occupational therapy sessions. The claim is still open, but everything points toward a win/win solution, says Pantoja. “He should be able to get back to his job in entirety, even if it requires some permanent restrictions.”
His return won’t solve Washington’s agricultural workforce shortage, but it’s a step in the right direction for employers who need all the skilled help they can get.