From left, Rick Anderson, Troy Frostad and Julie Loreth.

From left, Rick Anderson, Troy Frostad and Julie Loreth.

Farm supervisors play an increasingly important role in the recruitment and retention of workers as the labor pool shrinks, says Rick Anderson, corporate administrator for Sakuma Brothers Farms in Burlington, Washington.

“Your crew leaders or supervisors could be your best salesman to attract workers, or they could be your worst ones,” he told employers during the Washington Farm Labor Association’s annual labor conference in Wenatchee.

“We’re finding it difficult not only to find workers, but managers and supervisors who can work well in our operation and treat workers fairly and with dignity and respect, and be able to communicate with them,” he said.

Supervisors need to understand company policies, what the wages are, how the piece rate works, and what the benefits are, he said.

They need the personnel skills to resolve conflicts, and they need to be able to handle disciplinary procedures, regulatory compliance, and discrimination issues.

If there are labor activities coming into the operation, the supervisors have to know what they can and can’t say.

Anderson said supervisors and managers have to realize it’s not business as usual any more,particularly when there’s a labor shortage.

We do have to change. It’s not like the old school way of dealing with people.”

Sakuma Brothers would ideally hire 450 people to harvest its berries, but last year was at least 100 people short over the whole season.

Anderson asked the 200 people at the conference how many had adequate labor last year. No one raised a hand.

“We’ve got competition between growers,” he said. “You’re trying to get workers on your place rather than your neighbor’s.”

Hire internally

Troy Frostad, director of human resources at Mount Adams Orchards, White Salmon, Washington, said because of the difficulty of finding supervisors and crew bosses, his company decided to develop them internally by teaching them how to communicate with workers, deal with conflict, and enforce the company’s policies and rules.

But not everyone is cut out to be a supervisor, he’s found.

“You might have somebody who’s a very, very good picker or a very good pruner, and we often move them up to a role as supervisor or crew boss. But sometimes we find going from a pruner or picker to a supervisor requires a different skill set. So, we’ve had to go out and look in our crews and say, that person is a good pruner, we probably should keep that person there and not move them to supervisor.”

Instead, the company looks for people who have the specific skill sets to handle the realities of leadership, he said.

Happy workers

Julie Loreth, human resources manager at McDougall and Sons, Wenatchee, Washington, said an important role of supervisors is to make sure morale is high by treating workers with respect and dignity. Happy workers are more productive.

“If no one’s happy at the work place they find ways to get back at you,” she said. “If they’re happy, they pick faster and prune faster, and productivity goes up. You want everyone on your team working together toward a common goal.”

A happy workforce results in fewer complaints, she said.

“If you get employees complaining about supervisors showing favoritism, that’s a sign that you need to be looking at your leadership and your management because something’s wrong.”

Having happy workers is also helpful should legal services or state or federal agencies come to do an investigation, as they will interview the employees.

“If they say they’re treated well and clearly know what the expectations are and what the company policies are, most of the time the investigation is wrapped up very quickly with no fines, and it’s done,” Loreth said. “If you have unhappy employees, as you can imagine, the investigation can go completely sideways very quickly.”

Loreth said McDougall strives to make sure that its orchard managers are hands-on and know what’s happening so that the company can resolve problems before outside agencies become involved.

McDougall has three full-time bilingual human resource employees who work in the orchards the whole time. They walk the rows talking to workers and crew leaders about how things are going and any issues they might have, and make sure workers are treated respectfully.

“Sometimes, if there’s something going on, you can feel the tension,” she said.

They also visit the housing units to talk to employees.

“Workers know that if they have any issues they can talk to them. They know it’s confidential,” Loreth said.

Anderson said it’s critical for management to be plugged in and know what’s going on out in the field. His company also has human resource staff out in the field every day.

Training employees

The speakers were asked how they get supervisors to train workers without worrying that the workers might replace them.

“We talk to them about that,” Loreth said. “They are only as strong as the weakest link. If they want to advance in the company they have to develop their crew. The more they do that, the more opportunity they will have. If they don’t develop their crews and develop people who can back them up, it’s going to reflect negatively on them.”

Frostad said his company had supervisors who didn’t want to train the guest workers who came through the H-2A program because they thought the workers were displacing local people. The company addressed that by explaining that guest workers don’t replace local workers and by offering financial incentives for training workers. •