Labor issues ease for Florida produce industry

02/05/2009 12:00:00 AM
Doug Ohlemeier

(Feb. 5, 9:08 a.m.) MIAMI — The slowing of the national economy and the bust in Florida’s once-booming real estate and construction boom have helped ease labor problems for many Florida produce wholesalers.

Finding quality workers hasn’t been a big problem as of late, they said.

Chuck Bruno, vice president and general manager of DiMare Fresh-Tampa Inc., Riverview, said the tomato repacker hasn’t experienced much difficulty in securing adequate labor.

“It’s not a problem,” he said. “There are a lot of people looking for work. You get people knocking on the door almost every day looking for work, which is kind of scary. We are a lot smarter in managing the labor force than in the past as far as keeping people happy and satisfied.”

When DiMare moved to its eastern Hillsborough County location from its previous location on the Tampa Wholesale Market, some of its workers said they wouldn’t travel to the new location. Many more than expected, Bruno said, ride the bus or share rides to the site.

Labor has been less problematic for distributors in southern Florida.

“It had been a challenge in south Florida with the booming economy,” said Walter Vazquez Jr., chief executive officer of Freedom Fresh LLC. “Over the past few months, it has actually become relatively easy to find whatever you need. You have a lot more of a talented pool that you can choose from for different positions that might be available as opposed to a year back, when we were happy to just have an applicant. Now, we are able to have more to select from.”

The depressed economy has Coosemans Miami Inc. retaining more workers than usual, said Ronald Zamora, general manager.

“It has been difficult to keep labor because we have had to reduce expenses,” he said. “We have had to let go of people we may not have wanted to let go. We’ve also reduced work hours. We want to spread the pain between all of us rather than hurting one individual directly.”

Because many potential workers traveled to the Gulf Coast to secure higher paying construction jobs after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, finding good workers was difficult in Miami, Zamora said. He said Coosemans considered going to that area and offering people the opportunity to move to Miami and work for Coosemans. He said he called New Orleans fire department and Red Cross officials to see if they knew of people willing to relocate to Miami.

One of the problems was that many Miami residents were moving to the Carolinas because the cost of living had risen in south Florida.

Ernie Harvill, president of Harvill’s Produce Co., Orlando, said labor this past year has been much easier than in the past.

“There are quite a few people that have been laid off in this area,” he said. “It has been slower all over, but we’re not cutting any of our people yet. We won’t lay people off unless we have to. We’ve never laid people off. Their hours may get cut some but we don’t lay off unless absolutely necessary.”

Northern Florida has ample labor, said Larry Movsovitz, chairman and managing director of Produce Distribution Center LLC, Jacksonville.

“It’s a competitive market,” he said. “I remember when we used to have to push to get enough drivers. Now we have a good market here on labor. It’s easier to get drivers now.”

Retaining quality workers has been much easier for Crews & Garcia Inc., said Louis Garcia III, salesman and buyer.

“The way the economy is now, it’s very easy,” he said. “There’s a lot of people looking for jobs. We have had some people working here for two years now. In past years, every month or so they were in and out. A lot of people don’t have jobs anymore and will take whatever they can get.”



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