Ag Health Benefits Celebrates 50 Years
By Kathleen Reynolds
Ag Health Benefits Alliance has been providing affordable health insurance and other benefits for the agricultural community since its founding as the California Winegrower Foundation in 1972.
The seed of an idea started even earlier, back to 1968 during the creation of the United States’ first Agricultural Preserve in Napa County. Ren Harris, founder of Harris Vineyards/Paradigm Winery remembers it well.
“As a farmer whose presence in the Napa Valley stretched back multiple generations, my family and I were passionate about preserving the beautiful way of life here,” said Harris.
“In order to ensure its sustainability, we recognized a permanent core workforce was needed and that one way to attract and retain them was through providing health benefits to the workers and their families.”
From that idea, Harris and other growers who shared the goal to improve working conditions for farmworkers, formed the non-profit California Winegrower Foundation. “The concept of bringing growers together to collectively provide benefits for their workers was innovative for its time and helped to create a culture of caring for farmworkers that still exists among members today,” says Rebecca (Becky) Barlow who has been executive director for 16 years.
The organization rebranded as Ag Health Benefits Alliance (AHBA) in 2019 to distinguish itself from other similarly named associations. They serve nearly 100 local growers, vineyard managers and wineries, overseeing healthcare coverage for more than 1,600 employees and their families. Barlow attributes the organizations enduring success to its board of directors who actively participate in AHB A’s programs, loyal members and dedicated staff.
Jack Kuechler, owner of Hasting Island Land Company writes “In our company’s 45+ years’ association with CWF [Ag Health], what stands out most for me and my employees is the incredibly high level of customer service, which is second to none. The organization and all its employees not only respond quickly, but are professional problem solvers, never saying “this can’t be done” but always saying, “let’s figure out a solution” and then finding that solution.”With the ever-changing insurance rules and skyrocketing prices, how do they do it?
“Employer-sponsored healthcare is costly and complex. The requirements for employers vary by number of employees, which can be particularly complicated with a seasonal workforce. We keep close tabs on changing regulations and communicate regularly with members about compliance requirements,” explains Barlow.
“We have a unique group health program through our partnership with an agricultural Trust featuring flexible plan features and competitive pricing” says Barlow. “We also offer group medical, dental, vision, voluntary benefits, disability and life products through other California insurance carriers. These dual channels allow us to compare a wide choice of options for employers and develop strategic, well-rounded employee benefits programs.
AHBA’s bilingual customer service representatives help employees and their families understand their benefits, proactively manage their health and utilize resources. They frequently interact with providers and help employees obtain necessary care or resolve claims issues. One employee wrote: “There’s comfort knowing that we have such wonderful people looking after us and helping our family navigate our journey to stay healthy.”
Rawah Vineyards from the Family of Silver Oak Cellars has been a member for over 30 years. Veronica Jauregui, Vice President of Human Resources, says “the entire team is dedicated and responds timely to questions. They have built trust with our employees and many of them call them directly with questions on their health plans. Everyone is patient and the customer service representatives all speak Spanish, which makes a great difference to our vineyard employees to speak to someone in their own language. The community is very lucky to have the services of the Ag Health team here in our backyard.”
Barlow is proud about the rich history of the Pension Plan, which originated in the 1970s and has paid to date more than $35 million in pension benefits to agricultural workers. The Plan is still operational today and although no longer available to new employers or newly hired employees, the Plan expects to pay an additional $25 million for participants who qualify in the future. Barlow, who administers the Plan says, “This program demonstrates the level of commitment from employers and has made it possible for thousands of workers to retire comfortably.”
In addition, in 2019, AHBA formed the Agricultural Health Benefits Alliance Educational Foundation, LLC, a charitable qualified scholarship program offered exclusively to employees and their families enrolled in AHBA’s group health plan. The Educational Foundation provides grants for job training, trade schools, community college and advanced degrees. AHBA owns and provides administrative services for the program, which is funded by board member Michael Wolf, the Michael Wolf Trust and a growing list of others.
“The simplest way to describe the motivation behind the scholarship program is I feel that to a great extent my opportunities in agriculture are the result of the efforts of farmworkers,” explains Wolf, who owns Michael Wolf Vineyard Services. “I have the chance to provide them and their families an opportunity for advancement through education, be it in agriculture or elsewhere, so I want to take advantage of that. This seems like a natural extension of my long-term involvement with an organization whose mission and vision in which I totally believe.”
“It is our privilege to serve this community of caring, generous employers and their employees. We look forward to continuing the tradition for another 50 years,” says Barlow.