Offering medical benefits can help attract workers

By Tom Burfield

As procuring and holding onto workers becomes more of a challenge, an increasing number of growers are using an attractive health benefits package to lure potential employees.

“Beyond compensation, probably the No.1 demand employees make of a potential employer is that they receive health benefits,” says Bill Thomas, senior vice president of Western Growers Insurance Services in Irvine, Calif.

Several avenues exist that growers and other employers can explore to secure health care benefits for their workers.

Western Growers Assurance Trust is a nonprofit organization that provides full health care insurance in California and Arizona, but plans call for extending the service into other states within three years, Thomas says.

Its ultimate goal is to provide employee health benefits nationally, since growers in most states don’t have access to such a program, Thomas says. Instead, they must rely on private firms, who often are reluctant to insure agricultural workers.

All of the Western Growers Assurance Trust plans are designed for agriculture and take into account factors such as seasonal workers, part-timers and workers who do not speak English.

The trust is overseen by a board of grower-packer-shipper trustees.

Call your farm bureau

Sometimes, you can get health insurance through your local farm bureau.

The Washington Farm Bureau in Lacey, for example, began offering health insurance in the mid-1990s after the State Legislature enacted health care reform measures that prompted some insurance companies to leave the state, says Patrick Batts, chief executive officer.

The Washington Farm Bureau offers a program from Regence Blue Shield that now covers up to 10,000 workers, Batts says. The plan can insure up to 99 workers at a single company and is “incredibly price based.”

As growers vie for workers, more of them have started offering health insurance, Batts says, and many who already had a health plan have expanded their coverage.

A third alternative is the private insurance provider.

One such company, SKA Financial Services in Fresno, Calif., has a number of growers on its rolls, says Peter Graveline, vice president.

Because the firm insures so many farm workers, administrators are attuned to the ailments that can afflict them like allergies and the need for allergy prescriptions, he says.

The company offers a variety of plans that can range from simple hospitalization with no office visits up to 100 percent coverage for care and prescriptions.

Getting a reference

First Choice Labor, a labor contractor based in Madera, Calif., was referred to SKA Financial for a health care plan by the company’s workers compensation insurance provider, says Monica Garza, office manager.

Plans are completely paid for by the grower and the labor contractor. The monthly cost for one such plan is $260 for a worker under 30 with no family members. Families are covered for a premium of $1,000 per month, regardless of the number of members, she says. Under the plan, field workers pay 20 percent of the cost of their medical care.

Only a handful of the growers she works with offer health insurance. But workers are happier when their employers offer health benefits, and they tend to stay longer, she says.

Dean Farrens, a grower of wheat and garbanzo beans in Wall Walla, Wash., signed on with the Washington Farm Bureau’s Regence Blue Shield plan when he became vice president of the farm bureau, and he’s glad he did.

 “It’s turned out pretty well,” he says.

As a small grower, Farrens only needs insurance for himself and his wife at this time, but other workers could be added if needed.

Farrens, who also is chairman of the farm bureau’s health care trust, says health insurance can be expensive, but it’s a good way to attract labor.

It’s important to consider a variety of options to determine which one best fits your needs before committing to a particular health plan, Farrens says.

Picking Western Growers

Visalia Citrus Packing Group in Visalia, Calif., tried partial self-funding, private carriers and another agriculture association before going with a Western Growers health plan, says Rick Stacy, the company’s vice president of finance administration and chief financial officer.

“Part of it is finding a carrier that understands agriculture,” he says.

The company pays the health insurance premiums for all employees and their dependents, he says. Typically 170 to 180 people are covered, including packinghouse workers and office staff.

The Western Growers Assurance Trust also provides health care coverage in Mexico for those it insures, using the oldest and one of the most comprehensive networks of physicians and health care facilities, Thomas says.

Although he is a trustee for the Western Grower Assurance Trust, Stacy buys the company’s health insurance through a broker to be sure that he is getting an independent analysis. Plans are reviewed annually.

He says he looks for a plan that has “a meaningful selection of physicians and hospitals convenient to employees” and that offers good customer service.

Variable costs

The cost of health insurance varies by provider, plan, amount of coverage and other criteria.

Western Growers has about 12 standard plans and hundreds of customized plans where co-payments, deductibles, maximums and other factors vary widely, Thomas says. Rates can vary from as little as $50 to as much as $500 per month per insured.

Graveline says you can get a simple hospitalization-only plan for as little as $30 or $40 per month for workers under 30. Rates can balloon to a couple of hundred dollars for a plan that offers a $10 co-pay, 100 percent emergency room coverage, lab work, X-rays and prescriptions.

Batts of the Washington Farm Bureau says he considers $200 per month a low price for health benefits. Health savings accounts are the most popular plans, he says.

A health plan associated with a health savings account does not kick in until a specified deductible is met, Graveline of SKA Financial Services says. A worker can deposit funds into a tax-free account to help cover the deductible.

In some cases, employers, who save money with such a policy, contribute all or part of the deductible. Terms of the policy can vary, but the employer usually pays all or most of the premiums. Those who are insured under such a plan receive a debit card to cover office payments, so no paperwork is involved.

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Tips for choosing a health plan

Choosing the right health care plan isn’t always easy.

Here are some things that insurance professionals suggest you keep in mind:

  • Don’t just talk to one company. See an independent broker who represents all insurance carriers, recommends Peter Graveline, vice president of SKA Financial Services in Fresno, Calif.
  • Rates can vary by region, but a good broker will have a spreadsheet from every carrier in your area.
  • Make sure that most doctors, hospitals and urgent care centers are covered your plan, he says. Plans offering cheap rates may not cover all hospitals or doctors.
  • Ask your own doctor if he or she is covered by the plan you’re considering.
  • When you’re looking for an insurance carrier, find one that specializes in agriculture, suggests Bill Thomas, senior vice president of Western Growers Insurance Services in Irvine, Calif. Most companies do not.
  • Be sure to comparison shop, advises Patrick Batts, chief executive officer of the Washington Farm Bureau in Lacey, and go to more than one broker.
  • You’ll likely get the lowest rates if you can be part of a group, Batts says.