The New Realities Of Labor Broached At AmericanHort’s 2016 Plug & Cutting Conference

The labor shortage predicted in the 1990s isn’t a threat anymore, it has come to pass. Greenhouse growers in search of solutions will have to be innovative and resourceful as they explore new ways to recruit workers and reduce labor needs, said Craig Regelbrugge, Senior Vice President of AmericanHort, during a recent presentation on labor at the Plug & Cutting Conference, held September 19-21 in Carlsbad, CA.

Joe Bailey, Human Resources Manager, of Bailey Nurseries and John Erb, Vice President of North American Operations at Driscoll’s, joined Regelbrugge to talk with growers and others in the horticulture industry about how to navigate the new realities of labor. Each one provided a unique view into the current labor crisis, caused in part by demographic shifts ranging from an aging farmworker populations to near “net zero” Mexican migration due to greater difficulty crossing the U.S. border, and shared what their companies have done to address the problem.

Growers will need to leverage several resources during this current and worsening situation to survive, Regelbrugge said, including worker retention, automation/mechanization, outsourcing/offshore, non-traditional sources, and H-2A (including other source countries).

Treat Workers With Dignity To Increase Worker Retention

Erb offered growers a different perspective on labor from a similar industry as he discussed Driscoll’s current challenges with worker protests and calls for global consumer boycotts over alleged labor violations in the U.S. and Mexico. Erb says the company has addressed the labor unrest with reactive measures including the establishment of global worker welfare standards, piloting a Fair Trade USA Program in Baja, Mexico, and engaging consumers to ensure advocacy. Proactively, the company enlisted key stakeholders to address structural issues, and worked to improve community engagement and build greater awareness among growers and others in the berry industry.

Similar to the horticulture industry, Erb said growers in the berry industry are also turning to automation and H-2A for help, but a foundational way to address the labor challenge starts with retaining the workers they already have by building engagement and being responsive to their needs. The number one priority is to treat people with dignity. He suggested growers consider tools such as a LaborVoices program, training for crew leaders focused on communication and conflict resolution, building awareness about and providing in-house or community services, and providing social engagement opportunities that enhance loyalty.

Working With Refugees Not As Unfamilar A Process As Growers Think

Bailey discussed the pros and cons of the H-2A program, which he says has helped with seasonal labor shortages at Bailey Nurseries in St. Paul, MN, but comes with its own set of problems. Primarily, he says worrying about getting workers on time is what keeps him up at night.

Bailey offered this advice to growers involved in the H-2A program:
• Follow rules and regulations
• Be thorough and accurate when filling out the Department of Labor application
• Don’t take shortcuts
• Make sure supervisors are trained on the program and buy in to it
• Apply the first day you can
• Make sure top management stands behind the program
• Enlist good legal help

One area where Bailey Nurseries has had good success is working with Burmese refugees for seasonal labor, which it has done since 2011. Bailey said one advantage agriculture has when working with refugees is that because many positions needed to run a farm or greenhouse don’t require English, greenhouse growers can become preferred employers for refugees who are having difficulty finding work due to difficulties learning English.

Working with refugees shouldn’t be an unfamiliar process to growers, Bailey said, as it is similar to the language, transportation, and cultural issues they had 25 years ago when they first began working with many Spanish-speaking employees.

During Bailey’s presentation, he shared the following tips for growers who want to start working with refugees:
• Seek out groups (churches, agencies, associations) that work with immigrants and refugees. Bailey Nurseries is willing to share it’s the list of those it works with.
• Source bilinguals to help with training, management, and to translate documents
• Develop a translation booklet of key words, phrases, etc.
• Train supervisors and staff on where the refugees come from and their background
• Don’t put up with supervisors that don’t want to make a change and pivot toward new labor pools. Be prepared for pushback and how you will deal with it ─ firmly.

Above all, Bailey said if growers treat the refugees working for them well and follow the Golden Rule, others will follow, as these are self-recruiting communities.

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