Worker shortage hampers onion harvest

By Pat Caldwell
The Enterprise
NYSSA —Kay Riley, general manager of Snake River Produce in Nyssa, can’t find enough workers.
Neither can Grant Kitamura, general manager of Baker-Murakami Produce Company in Ontario. Both men, executives of two of the county’s biggest onion packing firms, are desperate to find enough employees as the $80 million onion industry starts its harvest.
“If we were not trying to harvest we’d probably be OK. But we are very shorthanded, especially in skilled positions such as fork lift drivers,” said Riley.
Kitamura said last week his firm is 30 people short while Riley said he needs at least 15 more employees.
For Riley it means shutting down onion input for a day and shifting workers to help fill onion bins.
Kitamura said last week he is considering a similar shift.
“I can’t run enough stations to receive all of the growers that want to come right now,” said Kitamura.
The reason for the labor shortfall isn’t clear.
“A number of our employees go off and fight fire and fire season has been lengthy. And you have a booming construction industry between the housing market in Boise and the new construction going on in western Idaho and eastern Oregon,” said Riley.
Another labor force influence, said Riley, is a shortage of migrant workers.
“The government needs to address that and establish a viable guest worker program,” said Riley.
The state’s unemployment rate is also a factor. Oregon’s jobless rate for August was 4.1 percent. Malheur County’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in June was 3.9 percent.
An employee shortage isn’t limited to the onion industry or to just Malheur County, said Chris Rich, a regional economist for the Oregon Employment Department.
“Overall businesses are struggling to find enough workers. It is more than region wide. The shortage of workers in various industries is kind of a thing throughout the whole nation,” said Rich.
Industries such as health care, where there is a need for nurses, transportation – where more truck drivers are needed – construction all have an acute demand for more employees, said Rich.
A falling unemployment rate coupled with an aging workforce and a lengthy qualification time for some jobs squeeze the available employee market, said Rich.
“For the nurses, for instance, what may play into it is the length of time it takes to get a nursing degree. And the degrees are highly competitive so programs only accept a certain number of people,” said Rich.
With no easy answers available, business managers such as Riley and Kitamura utilize short-term fixes. Riley and Kitamura said they’ve tried the usual routes, such as advertising for openings without luck.
“When we are in the midst of harvest it just takes extra people,” said Riley. “We have plenty demand for business but we are taking care of our absolute, essential customers we have now.”
Kitamura said the shortage means shifting the burden of the harvest.
“We will work longer hours. And there will be more overtime. It is just a terrible spot,” said Kitamura. “I am very concerned. Mother Nature will have to be good to us to get this crop in on time.”
Greg Smith, Malheur County Economic Development director, said there might be no short-term fix to the problem.
And it may grow worse before it improves.
“The situation will continue to compound because we are out there recruiting businesses. We are about to add about 200 new jobs with Farmers Fresh coming in,” said Smith. Farmers Fresh is a Canadian mushroom company that intends to build a facility in Vale.
Smith said that in the future officials intend to review a plan to create a transit system to bring workers into Malheur County from across the Treasure Valley.
Have a news tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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