Immigration is once again in the national news as bipartisan efforts to address the issue are suddenly a priority in Washington. No matter what direction a potential agreement takes, chances are that greenhouse and nursery businesses will be impacted in some fashion.
That was certainly the case during the last significant round of immigration legislation at the state level following the 2010 elections. Alabama, for example, passed regulations in 2011 that mandated strict enforcement of immigration standards and required employers to use the eVerify program to ensure the legal status of prospective employees.
We spoke with Carole Barton, co-owner of Barton’s Greenhouse and Nursery in Alabaster, Ala., who adapted to the new regulations in late 2011 and 2012. She described how they managed through the changes and offered some advice for other growers who might find themselves in a similar situation.
GG: When we met at Greenhouse Grower’s GROW Summit back in the fall of 2011, you were keeping a close eye on immigration legislation being passed back in Alabama. How did that impact your business?
Barton: We were watching the progress of the legislative debate in Alabama because, since many of our most experienced workers were immigrants, there was a likelihood that our business, and those of many of our customers, would be affected.
The law was tough and to make it worse, the rhetoric was mean-spirited. The state became a very unwelcoming and at times hostile place for folks who had lived there — and paid taxes —for many years. Several parts of the law- especially the ability of the police to check papers at routine traffic stops and impound vehicles on the spot- struck fear in the hearts of immigrants and many just packed up and left.
The new law did not require e-Verification of employees already on the payroll, so technically none of our then-current employees would have had to be eVerified. However, the law as it was originally passed required that businesses that sell to, or have contracts or grants with, state entities — agencies, municipalities, universities, etc. — sign and have notarized an affidavit for each entity they did business with stating, “You will not knowingly employ, hire for employment, or continue to employ an unauthorized alien.” Penalties for noncompliance were harsh, with stiff fines and potentially the loss of one’s business license. A significant amount of our business is state-related, so we had no choice but to comply.
We had all our employees’ paperwork and Social Security cards but, having recently attended seminars by immigration lawyers on how amazingly difficult, expensive and time-consuming it is for immigrants to enter the U.S. legally, we were not surprised when some of those documents turned out to be false. It was heartbreaking to let go workers who had done such a wonderful job for us for so many years.
We ended up losing 7 people with more than 55 years of experience. We’re not a big operation, so that put a major dent in our work force. These were folks in the trenches who had years of experience running the potting lines, sticking cuttings, pulling orders, etc. We miss them still.
GG: Were you able to replace those workers in time for spring in 2012?
Barton: We advertised our openings and also used a temp service. To find the 6 folks who have stayed with us, many of whom have a family or friend connection to other employees, we had to go through a whole lot more. That was a true adventure in every sense of the word, and even though the experience was hair-raising at times, we got some amazing stories out of it.
The folks who stuck with us had to learn and absorb a lot of information really quickly. They were new to every aspect of our business, from procedures to pot sizes to plant names. And since they were a majority of our workforce last spring, they worked really hard to get up to speed in time for the season. And since last spring came so early, there was a lot of “trial by fire training” around our place.
We notified our customers that we had a lot of new folks and asked them to let us know if any problems with quality or counts slipped through the cracks and got to their shops or jobsites. We asked them to send back any plants with quality problems and we would use the returned plants as a teaching tool. Gratefully very little came back. After the season, a few of our largest customers told us that the chaos and challenges we were experiencing at the nursery did not filter through to them. Between the remaining experienced folks who really stepped up to the plate, and the dedicated new folks who got a little whiplash navigating their crazy learning curve, we made it through.
GG: Did you consider other alternatives – replacing them with equipment rather than more people?
Barton: We would have to look very closely at the payback. We replaced a bulky $50,000 transplanter with a little Blackmore Punch N Gro and that’s worked well for several years. The smaller, simpler machine is much better suited to our place. It would be nice to add more automation, but we would have to study carefully whether our facility or our budget would be able to accommodate major renovation. Lean flow would be interesting to try, because we know we have wasted motion and would like to become more efficient.
GG: How did you handle training with so many new employees?
Barton: We hadn’t had to do a lot of training for a pretty long time because we had so many experienced personnel. Before the law passed, we were able to put a new employee with an experienced person who would show them the ropes. The new person would shadow the experienced worker and learn how to do things. Last spring we didn’t have anybody to shadow anymore.
So we were forced to look hard at our training, to get some information together and get more formalized in our processes. In the end that was a big help. We fussed and stomped about it, but it was really a good project, something that needed to be done. That was a silver lining to losing so many good people.
GG: What advice would you have for growers who might find themselves in a similar situation?
Barton: Let’s see what happens with the immigration reform they’re talking about in Washington right now. Hopefully no one else will have to go through what we did.
Also take a look at your new-hire training program if you don’t have one on paper. Outline procedures and put together introductory training checklists and power points for new folks to go through and seasoned ones to review. Even if you’re in good shape with your employees, it’s good to have on hand.
And keep your fingers crossed that our elected officials in DC will come up with a plan to fix our broken immigration system.