While seasonal retail employment increases, agriculture seeing reduction in workforce

October 16, 2017

 

Retailers are among the biggest seasonal employers.

By JENNIFER BONNETT
Business Journal Writer

’Tis the season for seasonal job postings.

Whether it’s harvest season or winter holidays, there are hundreds if not thousands of temporary positions seeking temporary employees.

But how do they effect the local economy, and how many of these jobs become permanent after the season has passed?

Historical unemployment statistics aren’t very promising.

With the fall-winter influx of seasonal jobs, San Joaquin County’s unemployment rate has historically skyrocketed in each new year. For example, it was 8.5 percent in January, compared to just under 7.5 percent four months earlier, according to the state Employment Development Department.

The rates were similar from December 2015 to January 2016, as well.

UPS is among those companies that contribute to the statistics due to its needs. Their seasonal opportunities are typically between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday time period when deliveries peak.

In San Joaquin County, UPS is currently hiring individuals to work as temporary, seasonal driver helpers. While not employed to drive the delivery vehicles, these employees will assist in the delivery of packages typically weighing 25 to 35 pounds, and up to 70 pounds.

There are also a number of retail outlets looking for seasonal workers, including Target that holds an annual hiring event. Their employment typically helps with the store’s bottom line.

For the fifth year in a row, Target plans to hire an additional 70,000 seasonal team members across their stores and 7,500 team members for local distribution and fulfillment facilities for the holiday season.

As online orders ramp up for the must-have products of the season, distribution and fulfillment center team members will help to replenish the stores while fulfilling the mega-high volume of online orders the retailer expects during the busiest season of the year, according to a news release.

Store teams also play an important role in Target’s online shopping experience as about 30 percent of the Target.com sales are fulfilled by a store, either through order pickup or ship-from-store options for buyers, according to the company’s website.

In order to meet the anticipated holiday shopping season kick-off commonly known as “Black Friday,” each store will be hosting its own hiring event from Oct. 13 to 15, between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., to showcase available positions. Applicants may have the opportunity to interview on the spot and receive a job offer during the weekend event.

Pacific Coast Producers, an agricultural cooperative owned by more than 160 family farms located in Central and Northern California, also hires seasonal workers with an employee base ranging from approximately 2,000 to 4,000 depending on the time of year. The Lodi-based company specializes in canning fruits and tomatoes for private brands throughout the world with plants in Lodi, Woodland and Oroville.

Adam Sroufe, director of labor relations, said the increase in employees is necessary to keep the plant operating.

In Lodi specifically, the company can add up to 900 to 1,000 workers to can peaches at the beginning of July and running through the beginning of August. While some work packing the fruit, others are washing it or transporting it from the warehouses.

“We’ve been in business so long that we have people come from all over, even out of state, because they know when our season starts,” Sroufe said of the seasonal worker base.

“It’s difficult sometimes, but depending on the year, we engage third parties to help us out, and each plant has an HR department that helps find people.”

Additionally, the company offers a lot of incentives to not only keep people coming back, but to stay the entire season.

“It’s many of the same people because they have reason to return,” Sroufe said. “Because of seniority, they are more likely to get raises and a lot of overtime. They can make a lot of money in a shorter amount of time than they could working longer.”

Still, they know at least in Lodi that seasonal workers will move onto other area packers after Pacific Coast Producers’ season is done. They don’t, however, formally track where they go or where they come from.

While Sroufe said it can be difficult to keep people in the plants for months and months, the company doesn’t see the shortfalls that farm laborers are experiencing.

“We have more difficulties than we did in the past, but we’re not seeing the same crunch that they’re seeing in the actual fields,” he added.

There, the number of temporary employees coming to the Central Valley from Mexico to work in the agricultural fields is dwindling.

Locally, growers have struggled in recent years with farm labor shortages. The federal crackdown on immigration, overtime mandates and a raise in minimum wage this year have only added to the burden, according to farmers.

Brad Goehring, a fourth-generation Lodi-area winegrape grower, said times have changed when it comes to farm workers. He personally owns about 500 acres, but manages another 10,000 in the greater Lodi area.

Years ago, he would employ 300 to 350 annual seasonal workers to prune during the five winter months and during the five summer months, manage grapevine canopies and thin the crops.

All that changed about six years ago when employment costs for seasonal workers skyrocketed and those that showed up weren’t productive — and it’s only getting worse.

“We’re finding ways to deal with it. It’s affecting business a great deal, but the shortage is only half the story,” Goehring said, turning his attention to new labor laws that are forcing a new way of farming.

“We’re using all of our profits to mechanize our operation. We don’t see that the problem is going to be solved on availability, and we don’t see that costs are going to decrease,” he added.
“If we’re going to stay in business, we’re going to have to mechanize.”

Goehring is not alone. He sits on a statewide winegrape growers board where his peers determined that costs associated with labor have risen about 40 percent over the last few years; of that, 15 percent is just minimum wage laws and 25 percent related to lack of productivity.

“If there’s any bit of resistance to performing the job, they’ll just walk off the job,” he said of his experience.

To illustrate the shift, more than 200 leaf-pulling machines have been sold in Lodi alone in the last two years due to new labor laws. Each $25,000 machine replaces a crew of 30 people for six weeks, and it’s more cost-effective.

“No one employs people anymore to pull leaves. Mechanism has just taken over here, even with just that one activity,” Goehring said. “Now it’s a necessity. It’s become cheaper to do it this way instead of an unreliable workforce.

“It’s not just the lack of labor, it’s that coupled with the laws affecting our bottom line.”

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