(UPDATED COVERAGE, Feb. 7) More than 2,100 seasonal field workers at the Sun Pacific Farming Cooperative facility in Bakersfield are scheduled to be permanently laid off in the second week of March, but company officials say the move will not affect supplies or distribution.
Toby Maitland-Lewis, chief financial officer for Sun Pacific, said the company is shifting from having seasonal employees on staff. Instead, the company will use independent farm labor contractors for seasonal workers.
The 2,100 seasonal employees account for about 30% of the company’s total seasonal workforce, Maitland-Lewis said. The other 70% are already sourced from independent labor contractors. He said Sun Pacific views the move as less of a layoff scenario and more of a case of workers changing employers.
A decrease in table grape acreage is also a factor, Maitland-Lewis said. He said some growers have pulled out vineyards of Thompson seedless and replanted with increasingly popular red varieties of table grapes. The replanted vineyards won’t be producing viable fruit for four to five years.
“We can’t offer our employees the same amount of work,” Maitland-Lewis said, adding that the 2,100 seasonal workers to be laid off generally logged about 600 hours a year with Sun Pacific.
During peak harvest when the workers were logging minimum specified hours, they had free health insurance and were enrolled in Sun Pacific’s pension plan, Maitland-Lewis said. Employees who had worked enough for five years are vested in the pension plan and can receive benefits at retirement age, but they will not be eligible to accrue additional benefits after the layoff.
The company filed a notice Jan. 12 as required by the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act regarding the upcoming layoffs. The WARN Act is a federal law that requires certain employers to provide advance notice of large layoffs. California has a similar state law.
News of the layoffs broke Jan. 30, the day before Sun Pacific announced it had hired a new president, Robert DiPiazza.
The move by Sun Pacific is similar, but on a much larger scale, to a step taken recently by Tanimura & Antle in late January when officials at the Salinas, Calif.-based company announced it would lay off 67 employees and outsource harvest work at its Texas onion operation.
Staff Writer Mike Hornick contributed to this report.