Help Wanted: Accounting For The Ag Labor Shortage
Watching our Operations Manager waste away in his office while prospective job candidate after prospective job candidate fail to show up for their scheduled interviews, has become a spring tradition that’s as reliable as trees blossoming and bees buzzing. As is the case with most farming businesses, there’s an annual need to staff up on seasonal employees for planting and harvest. Our farm outfit is blessed with a team of talented, hard-working, and reliable people who come back to work for us year after year. But we always need a few extra people. Nothing extreme, just three or four more people. For the last few years, finding those extra few has become a frustrating process, but not because we have unreasonable standards, or offer poor wages. Simply put -- we can’t even get people to show up for an interview.
You wouldn’t expect this to be a problem in an area like Colusa County, where it was recently reported that unemployment is worsening, reaching a 12.1 percent unemployment rate. How can it be that in an area that has the worst unemployment rate in the region, we can’t even get one of these unemployed people to show up for a job interview? Let’s come back to that.
Over the last several seasons, our process for recruiting new employees has been very consistent. Each spring, we post multiple job listings, some for part time work, some for full time work, at multiple help wanted locations. Those include the One-Stop offices for Colusa, Sutter, and Glenn counties. Additionally, we advertise available positions on Facebook, including posts we pay for as sponsored ads. Between all of those listings, we receive dozens of inquiries. Of those, about 75 to 80 percent have the qualifications and background that make us interested in the candidate. Shortly after paring down the list, we make phone calls and schedule interviews with everyone. When the hour arrives for those scheduled interviews, only about 4 percent even bother to show up. And, we end up hiring nearly all of those people. Unfortunately, we still come up short on what we need every time we go through this charade, and we rarely open a season with a full staff.
It wasn’t until after the first year of interview no-shows that we realized most of these applicants are not legitimately interested in working. Our theory is that the majority of them are waltzing through the formalities that allow them to maintain their state unemployment income. It becomes fairly obvious when we get applications from the same people every six months, schedule interviews with those applicants, and watch the clock tick past their interview appointment time, in the end checking the no-show box.
Prior to concluding that the unemployment system is being manipulated in a manner that allows people to maintain the benefits of the program, without making legitimate efforts to find work, I sincerely believed that state oversight made this level of fraud impossible. I could not have been more wrong. This spring I contacted a high-ranking individual at a local county One-Stop office, who told me that the state makes zero effort to confirm that people on unemployment are actually showing up for the job interviews they schedule. All the applicant is required to do is fill out the paperwork, which includes the name of the company at which they applied for a job, what the open position is, when the interview allegedly took place, and who their contact is within the company. Once that paperwork is filled out and submitted, no further action is taken, other than a continuation of unemployment benefits, so long as the unemployed person is physically able to work and representing as if they’re actively seeking work. Getting taxpayer money for nothing has never been so easy.
That brings us back to the point I made earlier about unemployment rates in Colusa County. If you go by what you read in the newspaper, Colusa County has a higher unemployment rate than anywhere else in the state. And in the article this phenomenon is directly tied to an absence of job opportunities. To that I say- hogwash. Every single Colusa County farmer I ask has shared with me their woes in putting together a seasonal staff. The agriculture labor shortage is getting worse every year, and has gotten to the point where it’s making national headlines. Stories have been published in the LA Times and Washington Post about vegetable crops rotting in the ground, and fruit rotting off of trees because no one is available to pick them. Meanwhile, articles about high unemployment rates fill the pages of city newspapers all over the state. Both of those circumstances can’t be true. That is, not unless there’s a third variable, which is government provided welfare incentivizing people to not work, and making it very easy for them to do so, with a system that has zero accountability.
The time has come for the California State Senate and Assembly to build stronger oversight and higher standards into this process.The state agencies charged with policing the masses on unemployment are showing a complete lack of integrity in the monitoring of how taxpayer money is distributed via the unemployment system. This is allowing people to sit at home and collect a check, while companies who need workers, suffer from empty corridors of interested candidates. In the world of Ag, the labor shortage has swelled to the point of being a major statewide issue. The system is fixable, and can be made better by state agents cracking down on scammers within the system, who have run rampant within the loose boundaries those programs provide. Ag is suffering, and the lack of available labor is forcing farmers to look for alternatives, including technological advancements which will ultimately make these jobs obsolete, and lead to a true job loss, which once gone, will never return.