Growers hoping to recruit good workers need to invest in their work force, says Paul Baker, executive director of the New York Horticultural Society and former farmer.
Some growers in New York have been recruiting workers through the H-2A program for a number of years, and year by year more growers are participating, he said. However, the percentage of the work force that’s recruited through the H-2A program is still only about 10 to 15 percent, he estimated.
One of the problems is the expense. In addition to paying workers the adverse effect wage rate, employers also have to pay their transportation costs and provide housing. "That’s a pretty big hit," Baker acknowledged.
But when growers tell him it’s too expensive to supply housing, Baker points out that if orchardists are hoping to attract the best employees, they need to have housing. Otherwise, they’re going to be drawing from the bottom of the labor pool. "The good growers have housing that’s equal to or far superior to the minimum requirements for H-2A," he said. "You have to put together a human resources package that’s attractive. If you’re going to get good workers at any level and expect them to do a top-quality job, you have to treat them as top-quality people. You have to invest in them."
The Hort Society has sponsored educational seminars to explain how growers can find funding for housing.
Another way to secure a steady work force is to communicate better, Baker said. He noted that in general, growers tend to be poor communicators. They just assume that their workers will come back the following year. They need to do a better job of articulating to their workers what they expect and of telling them they’re looking forward to having them back next year. "I don’t think we tell our people enough that they’re doing a good job," he said.
A good package is more than just a paycheck, and should include nonmandatory benefits, he said. When he was farming, he offered incentives to encourage employees to stay at his farm. He would take out 25 cents an hour from the employee’s paycheck, and he would match the 25 cents. At the end of the year, they could collect their money and the matching amount.
"The deal was, I would match their money as long as they stayed with me until after Thanksgiving," Baker said. "At Christmas time, they had a pretty good pool of money for Christmas, and they appreciated that."
If the workers left early, they got their 25 cents back, but Baker didn’t match it.
"You have to be a little more creative," he explained. "Make your place of employment a little bit different from the next." Early this season, there seemed to be more labor available than a year ago.
"Last year at this time, there was quite a concern about having enough labor even to get orchard replanted, we were that short," he recalled. "But it does appear right now that, for whatever reason, people were able to find some temporary help."
The workers they’re finding are different from in the past, he said. Some of them are from the baby-boomer generation, people who retired early but don’t want to stop working entirely. However, these are not the kind of people who will want to pick apples later in the season, he said. "We’re going to cross each bridge as we come to it."