How Bailey Nurseries Has Found Solutions To The Labor Shortage

Working with refugees from Southeast Asia was a natural fit for Bailey Nurseries because it has a company culture of embracing diversity. L to R: William Soe, Dari Nieves Rubio, Ae Paw, Joe Bailey, and Isabel Toledo. Photo courtesy of Bailey Nurseries.

Mon Dine isn’t your typical Bailey Nurseries employee. His name means “hurricane” for starters, because he was born during a tumultuous year of a political uprising in his country. The military there killed his father and shot his brother, who has spent the last year recovering in the hospital.

Mon Dine hasn’t seen his wife in two years. She’s stuck in Myanmar (formerly Burma) in Southeast Asia, unable to come to the U.S. During Bailey Nurseries’ busy season, Mon Dine works in the Human Resources department. It’s one of two jobs he works to support his family, and in his spare time, he is learning English or studying for a test. He plans to return to his homeland one day, to help his people.

To Joe Bailey, Human Resources Director at Bailey Nurseries, Mon Dine is a hero.

“He is the kindest, most humble, and grateful person,” Bailey says. “One of his culture’s social mores is to be happy, no matter their plight. That’s incredibly admirable to have that outlook on life given some terrible circumstances. For me, it puts a bad day in perspective.”

A Changing Workforce Leads To New Avenues For Labor

Bailey’s great grandfather J.V. Bailey founded Bailey Nurseries in 1905. The company’s main headquarters sits on the original farm location in St. Paul, MN, with additional production and distribution facilities based in Oregon, Washington, and Illinois. The operation grows trees, shrubs, perennials, and liners, producing these products in greenhouses, bare root fields, and in containers. Bailey Nurseries is well known for its Endless Summer, First Editions, and Easy Elegance brands. In 2014, Greenhouse Grower awarded the company its Medal of Excellence for Marketing award for the Endless Summer hydrangea campaign.

Bailey runs the company with his four brothers and four cousins. Two of the cousins are fifth generation family members.

“We have been fortunate to have great mentors in our grandfather, Gordon Bailey Sr., and our fathers, Gordie and Rod,” Bailey says. “We are very much a family business, and we have a wonderful workforce that is like an extended family.”

But it wasn’t always so.

During the 111 years of its history, the operation has weathered several ups and downs with its seasonal workforce. During World War II, many of the young men working for the operation enlisted in the military, triggering the start of a long-standing relationship between Bailey Nurseries and the Mexican immigrants that filled the labor gaps.

Mexican immigrants made up 95% of Bailey Nurseries’ workforce during the 1990s, until an unexpected event, in the form of an INS (Immigration and Naturalization Services) audit of I-9 forms, took the nursery down a different path. Almost overnight, the company lost 137 experienced workers who lacked proper work authorization, even though they had initially presented what appeared to be genuine documents. The struggle to find reliable seasonal labor began in earnest.

In 2008, Bailey Nurseries brought in its first H-2A workers, a costly move taken to obtain experienced, seasonal workers. The decision to join the H-2A program has been a mixed blessing. For the last four years, the nursery has been fully staffed, which means the company has successfully staffed 450 seasonal positions each spring in Minnesota during a three-week period, a feat that others growers are wondering how to accomplish.

“Most of them [H-2A workers] have been with us for 10 years now, so when they come back each spring it is a real shot in the arm for us. They get off the bus and start pulling orders or loading trucks,” Bailey says. “You just can’t replace that kind of experience. Our quality is better, shipping mistakes go down, and injuries go down with an experienced workforce.”

The veteran workforce and low turnover has resulted in very few disciplinary issues or attendance problems, allowing supervisors to focus less on people problems and more on managing the workload.

H-2A Necessitates Strict Attention To The Minutia Of Detail

Then there’s the other side of the H-2A program — the expense, the bureaucracy, and the onerous regulations. Bailey Nurseries works through this by having the proper human resource staff in place to handle all the paperwork related to the recruiting and application process. The company also retains ongoing legal counsel to help with Department of Labor (DOL) audits and recordkeeping. And it thoroughly trains its supervisors on the program and its regulations.

The staff is careful to pay attention to detail and not cut any corners. One thing out of place can mean a stalled application that results in a delayed workforce.

“The biggest risk with the program is not getting your workers on time or on your date of need,” Bailey says. “As the H-2A program gains popularity, there will be inevitable log jams with the bureaucratic process, whether it’s on the front end with the DOL or at the back end when you are trying to get your workers their visas at the U.S. consulate in their homeland. Have a plan B in mind and make sure you are prepared to get your federal elected officials involved to expedite the process if needed.”

Shipping mistakes and work-related injuries have gone down at Bailey Nurseries, in part because it has a veteran workforce that returns each spring. Photo courtesy of Bailey Nurseries.

Working With Refugees A Natural Fit For Bailey Nurseries

With 450 seasonal positions to fill in Minnesota, which doesn’t include the several hundred additional employees working at the company’s other divisions, Bailey Nurseries needed more than H-2A workers to fill the gaps in its seasonal workforce. Working with refugees was a logical next step in acquiring labor.

“We have employed workers from more than 25 different countries over the years, so our company has a culture that embraces diversity,” Bailey says.

The company started working with the Southeast Asia refugees in 2011, employing 20 of them that first year and working up to the 200 it currently employs. Most of the refugees start out as seasonal workers and several of them have moved to skilled positions. Close to 100 of them now work year round. The refugees now make up 50% of the seasonal workforce at Bailey Nurseries’ Minnesota operation, where it used to be 95% Latino.

The first few years working with the refugees were more challenging due to the language barrier, so the company enlisted the help of a local refugee organization for help with translating. Now many of the refugees speak English and help with translating in the workplace and navigating training and safety issues.

Bailey Nurseries also did its part to ease the transition by translating important documents into the refugees’ language and creating a translation booklet with phonetic pronunciations of key words and phrases used in the nursery, as well as working with the local school district to offer Adult Basic Education to more than 100 of its employees.

The company brought in an expert on the refugee community to help its supervisors understand where the refugees came from, why they were persecuted, and why they were in the U.S. The same expert met with the top 25 leaders of the refugee workforce and talked about career opportunities at the nursery.

Another initial concern was integrating the southeast Asian refugees with the Latino workforce. Fortunately, both groups got along really well, in part bonding due to their common challenging backgrounds. They teach each other their languages, share food, and play soccer together. There has even been one marriage between a refugee and a Mexican-born worker.

To make it all work, the company takes care to run a workplace free of discrimination, racism, and harassment.

“You have to nip these things in the bud and make sure supervisors are trained on how to deal with these issues,” Bailey says.

PTSD: An Unusual Challenge For A Greenhouse Operation

Several of the refugees working at Bailey Nurseries have had family members killed, maimed, or tortured because of the political conflicts in their country. Genocide has been declared on them, and they have been hunted by the Burmese government, which brings up another challenge — PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It’s important to have the resources available to help the refugees deal with these issues. They aren’t used to American health care,” Bailey says. “Many grew up in refugee camps that are primitive in nature and have never seen the world outside their camps. You have to hold some hands to get them help with the more difficult issues.”

The company’s Midwest Human Resources Manager, Isabel Toledo, an immigrant herself, has been instrumental in making the refugees’ transition to the greenhouse workforce a smooth one. She has developed strong relationships with the refugee agencies, brought in training for the employees, and finds employees the care they need when situations arise.

“She is the main reason why we have a seasonal workforce that is 85% returning, trained, and reliable,” Bailey says. “She has a can-do attitude and realizes there are solutions to all of our problems.”

Above all, Toledo has always treated the refugees with dignity and respect, something Bailey says is the most important thing the company can provide for them, to help them develop the confidence and skills they need to make a great member of the company and a good member of society.

What does the future hold for the refugees working at Bailey Nurseries? Bailey says the company hopes to train more of the staff on basic horticulture skills, in the hopes it will pique their interest in the plant world and our great industry.

“I hope some of our refugees learn basic work ethic skills at our nursery that can take them onto careers as nurses or doctors,” he says. “And the ones that want to be great nurserymen and women will have the opportunity to do that at Bailey Nurseries.”

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