California Grower Foundation
Foundation helps ensure
health care for farmworkers
Executive director: Rebecca Barlow
Address: 176 Main St., Suite C, St. Helena, CA 94574
If you were to ask the general public about medical coverage for agricultural workers, many would be surprised even at the juxtaposition of these two concepts in one sentence.
But while major efforts to expand health care for Americans became part of the national conversation during the 2008 presidential election, the Napa Valley was, in important ways, ahead of the curve.
For many agricultural workers here, health care options all changed in 1972. That was the year Ren Harris of Paradigm Winery rallied other grapegrowers in the valley to contribute to a brand-new organization in order to start providing health and retirement benefits to their employees.
“The concept of bringing growers together to provide benefits for the workers was innovative for its time and helped to create a culture of caring for farmworkers that still exists among foundation members today,” said Rebecca Barlow, executive director of the California Grower Foundation.
The rationale was simple. In the November 1974 issue of Western Fruit Growers magazine, Harris said, “We felt it was to the advantage for both the growers and the workers to provide a better situation for good workers.”
Now, as the foundation celebrates its 40th anniversary, Napa Valley agricultural workers receive better health benefits than many of their counterparts in other locations and industries. Much of this is due to the foresight of Harris, who was also involved in creating the California Association of Winegrape Growers.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary and honor its founder, the California Grower Foundation is donating $7,500 to the viticulture program at Napa Valley College and $2,500 to the viticulture program at Santa Rosa Junior College in Harris’ name.
What is your purpose or mission?
Barlow: “The California Grower Foundation works closely with growers, vineyard managers and wineries to provide health benefits, financial security and peace of mind to the workers who serve our community.”
In brief, what’s the history of your organization?
“Prior to 1972, agricultural workers generally lacked insurance benefits and there were few affordable alternatives that benefited both the growers and the workers. The California Grower Foundation’s founding members recognized that offering a comprehensive benefit program helps to attract and retain a healthy, productive workforce.
“While early on the foundation provided social services as well as employee benefits, by 1983 the focus had evolved to include only benefit administration. In 1986, membership was expanded to include agricultural processors as well as growers and managers. Lee Henderson, the first executive director, retired in 2006.”
Who are the people you serve?
“The foundation member employers provide health benefits to more than 1,200 winery and agricultural employees and their families. To meet the diverse needs of managers, field workers and seasonal employees, a variety of medical plan choices are offered, plus the ability to include dental, vision and life insurance. Many employers also provide the Grower Foundation pension plan to their employees to serve as a supplemental source of income when they retire. By the end of this year, the Foundation Pension Plan will have paid more than $17.5 million to agricultural workers who are genuinely grateful to be rewarded for their service in this way.
“Through the Grower Foundation, thousands of Napa Valley agricultural employees and their families have received relief from the financial burden of medical expenses. Over the decades, the health care industry has seen many changes. While the number of uninsured people in all sectors has climbed, enrollment in the foundation has continued to grow.
“Compared to other industries, I have found our membership to be extremely giving and generous with their employee benefit programs.”
Is there an anecdote that illustrates the work you do?
“Kathy, a member employer, recently commented, ‘Our employees can call the foundation and speak with someone who can answer their questions in friendly, understandable terms in Spanish or English.’ This statement is echoed by Juan, an employee who recently retired after 30 years at a well-known winery: ‘I was treated like family and am grateful for the assistance you gave to me.’”