• Wed. Nov 30th, 2022

The industry is struggling with a labor shortage

ByStephanie M. Akbar

Nov 9, 2022


Lynn Grooms

MADISON, Wis. – Difficulty finding and retaining workers continues to challenge meat processors as well as farmers. Labor shortages affect slaughter dates, with some breeders unable to schedule appointments until 12 to 18 months later.

The labor shortage also underscores the need for immigration policy reform, said Fritz Usinger, president of Usinger’s Famous Sausage. He spoke at a recent roundtable held at the Wisconsin Meat Industry Coalition Conference in Madison.

“We need to have policies that solve the immigration crisis,” he said. “The American manufacturing industry needs an immigration policy to remain viable. We need more people to work in manufacturing jobs.

Due to labor shortages, Usinger’s had to eliminate some products and sizes, he said. It also had to give up some of its private label customers to maintain capacity in other areas.

“We are short of about 15 to 20 employees to meet our needs; we cannot operate all the equipment due to labor shortage,” he said. “Our facilities are designed for short runs and fast turnaround. »

The 142-year-old company employs 165 people at two facilities in Milwaukee. Around 150 of them are directly involved in production.

Many people assume that automation can help alleviate labor shortages. But if the equipment breaks down and the equipment supplier doesn’t have personnel available to fix it, the meat processor has a problem, Eickman said. He is the owner of Eickman’s Meat Processing in Seward, Illinois, about 30 miles south of the Wisconsin border. His business is a US Department of Agriculture inspected plant that processes between 40 and 45 head of cattle and 60 to 80 hogs per week.

The family business is engaged in contract processing as well as the wholesale and retail sale of meat.

“We have 32 employees and are currently full,” he said.

Johnsonville of Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, employs 3,000 people at seven facilities. Prior to 2021, the company had a steady stream of applicants. But in 2021, around 15% of critical jobs in manufacturing were unfilled.

“We were only getting two applications per vacancy,” said Kristen Young, director of talent acquisition at Johnsonville. “(So) we improved our referral program; 40 percent of our new hires have been referrals,”

Employees who refer candidates are eligible to receive $1,000. The new hire receives $1,000 after working in Johnsonville for three months.

The company has embedded analytics on its website to help send targeted messages to job applicants. And he is developing a platform in Spanish. The company is working to remove language barriers by supplying Spanish and Hmong speakers, said Steve Sorenson, who oversees employee retention efforts for Johnsonville. And Johnsonville increased its compensation by 25%.

Eickman’s Meat Processing recruits candidates in several ways.

“We find candidates through word of mouth, social media, our company website, television ads and church groups,” Eickman said. We found many immigrant candidates through religious groups.

“We are looking for workers with a high school diploma who may have encountered obstacles in life, who are interested in the business and who like to do physical work. There is a lot of physical work between the slaughterhouse and the cutting of the meat. And workers must be able to tolerate both cold and hot environments.

“We have found that what is most important to employees are salaries, flexibility, insurance, social interaction, stability and discounts.”

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Employees can purchase Eickman’s meat products at cost, he said.

The Illinois minimum wage is $12 per hour. Effective January 1, 2023, it will increase to $13 per hour. Starting salaries at Eickman range between $13 and $15 an hour. More experienced employees can earn between $20 and $25 an hour, he said. That’s a living wage in Seward, where three-bedroom homes sell for $80,000 to $100,000.

Usinger said his company has a positive relationship with the Wisconsin United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

“We haven’t had any layoffs or strikes,” he said.

To recruit and retain employees, Usinger’s raised wages by $3.80 an hour across the board. It also offers health insurance, life insurance and short-term disability insurance. The company provides twice-daily meals to employees and free parking. It also organizes raffles for employees who work on Saturdays. These employees have a chance to win tickets to Brewers and Packers games as well as gift cards for groceries and fuel.

“We instituted an employee referral program where the employee receives $500 if the new hire works with the company for at least three months,” Usinger said. “We also offer quarterly attendance bonuses, which we did to incentivize employees with less than stellar attendance records; 25% of the workforce will have attendance issues.

There is a union pension plan and Usinger has designated flexible working hours.

“Despite this, we even struggle to attract applicants,” he said.

Prospective candidates may want to avoid working in the cold and hot environments of meat processing plants.

“There’s also a perception that meat factories are super-spreaders of COVID,” Usinger said.

The company lost several employees during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the closure of many daycares. Many of these women did not return to the factory, he said.

Meat processors discussed other reasons for labor shortages. Many companies, regardless of industry, have dramatically increased salaries to attract employees. Wage increases in some sectors may be enough that a person does not need to take a second job to make ends meet. This could be a reason why there are not as many restaurant workers available. Childcare costs have also increased.

“Handwriting is on the wall given the country’s low birth rate and an aging workforce,” Usinger said of the continuing labor shortage.

Immigrant workers can help address this shortage, he said.

“We need a pathway to citizenship,” he said.

Elected officials must recognize that many industries need workers year-round, not just on a seasonal basis, he said.

Sorenson said Canada’s visa processes are much easier than those in the United States.

“We’re going to need gateways to a visa program,” he said.

This is an original article written for Agri-View, an agricultural publication of Lee Enterprises based in Madison, Wisconsin. Visit AgriView.com for more information.

Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the latest industry ideas, research and technology as a reporter for Wisconsin-based Agri-View.

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