Long before COVID-19 threw a wrench into the workforce, agriculture has been fighting a shortage of workers for U.S. farms. Exacerbating the problem, in March, the U.S. made the decision to temporarily close its consulate in Mexico due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19, halting the processing of H2-A and TN visas because those applications must be completed in-person at the consulate office.
Even though unemployment claims have reached unprecedented levels due to pandemic-related business closures or layoffs, hog operations haven’t the number of applicants for their open positions that they hoped they would.
“From a retention standpoint, we've seen a decrease in people leaving their jobs or seeking employment elsewhere. I think that's probably a reflection of the uncertain economic climate. The job market, unfortunately, has taken a pretty big hit with COVID-19. So, we're now essentially competing with other businesses that have essential workers in place,” says Josh Flint, director of recruitment, retention and communication for The Maschhoffs in Carlyle, Illinois.
“One challenge with labor has been hiring individuals who are currently off of work and receiving unemployment benefits. The government put together a fairly robust unemployment benefit program in the wake of COVID-19, which has been helpful for those folks. But at the same time, it's made it difficult to compete with the financial compensation they're receiving on unemployment versus some entry-level hourly jobs,” he continues.
Silvia Castañeda, human resources manager for Eichelberger Farms in Wayland, Iowa, has faced similar difficulty trying to fill open positions. Eichelberger Farms has been able to keep the workers they have in the country on TN visas with an extension during the pandemic, but relies on the program to fill jobs they aren’t able to fill with local workers.
“I would hope, post-COVID-19, that our officials start looking at these visas, and help us figure out a way to get the foreign labor that we need. Because we do need it. I really wish that we could say with this high unemployment rate that we don’t need foreign workers, and we would be able to employ all American workers. But I'm sitting here with all these open positions and I don't have people applying, or the ones that do, come to work for a day or a week and then they leave,” she says. “With the foreign workers, if you get them a visa, they come to work and you have a good worker for a year. Sometimes that's the better option.”
If new labor is unable to come from outside of the U.S. right now, and local workers aren’t applying for open positions, retention of employees becomes even more crucial. And it may be easier than you think. One of the most important tools Castañeda has found for employee retention and engagement is communication.
Valued employees are happy employees
Over the years, Castañeda says she has learned to listen to people and ask questions. Early on, employers didn't ask employees what they wanted to learn, or what they wanted to gain from their employment to make it more enjoyable.
“When I started asking those questions, I thought people would focus on payment. I was surprised because the type of things employees were asking for were feedback and training. Or a ‘good morning’ from their manager.,” she says. “When we started to actually do some of those things, we saw a difference and people become more engaged. And if you keep people engaged, you can do a lot of good work.”
Flint agrees. He says most of the time, retention isn’t about money. It may boil down to that in some cases, but at the heart of it, employees want to feel valued. They want to know that you, as an employer, are invested in them and their career. That goes a long way in retaining high-quality staff.
“It doesn't matter if it's an animal caregiver who’s just starting out, or a team lead that's been running a breeding section for three years—you’ve got to show people they're valued. In many cases, that means showing them what their career path looks like and helping them achieve their personal goals,” he says.
Employers often get hung up on ‘Well, this person is good in this role, so the way to show them that they are valued is to give them another 50 cents an hour.’ But Flint says the opportunity could be to figure out how you move them to the next position. How do you show them a five-year plan and get them to where they want to be?”
Extra measures may be needed in times of uncertainty
Although these efforts go a long way in making employees happy to come to work, both farms have implemented additional safety efforts to lessen the fear and uncertainty that comes with the global pandemic.
“We're staggering the start times for our employees so we don't have more than one person waiting to get into the shower, for example, and we're asking them to break up the groups that go to break at a time so that they're able to have social distancing,” Castañeda says. “As far as the sanitation of the farm, we do a pretty good job of that for biosecurity reasons, but now we're taking it to the next step and sanitizing other places like microwave handles.”
Flexibility in the ability to take time off without losing pay or losing their position entirely when employees are ill or need to care for a family member who is ill is another way to help during this time.
“When this really started to break and affect everybody in the U.S., we quickly established a new bucket of sick leave days and everybody in the company was awarded 10 additional sick days. We applied it very liberally so we didn’t require a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19,” Flint says. “We've had individuals who have had a sick family member, and they wanted to use that time to take care of them and we're more than happy to accommodate that.”
If an employee needs to be gone for a longer period of time, Flint says they’ve also worked with their short-term disability provider to discover options available to their team. That can go a long way in putting employees at ease, knowing their company values the work they do.