New Jersey growers face labor challenges

05/31/2013 12:11:00 PM
Andrew Nelson

New Jersey vegetable growers report adequate labor so far this season, but probable shortages of blueberry pickers are causing widespread concern.

When facing the labor question, there’s a significant gap between short-term and long-term answers, said Tom Sheppard, president of Cedarville, N.J.-based Eastern Fresh Growers Inc.

“As of now, we have enough guys here,” he said. “We’re a little nervous about the future.”

The latest news out of Washington, D.C., is promising, Sheppard said, but it doesn’t mean much until everyone signs on the dotted line.

“It looks good now, but what they do in conferences is different from what passes,” he said. “They have to actually pass it.”

 

Impact of health care, wage laws

Immigration reform isn’t the only issue in Washington that will affect New Jersey growers’ labor issues, Sheppard said. How the Affordable Care Act is implemented also could impact the labor situation.

As for the upcoming New Jersey referendum on raising the state’s minimum wage, Sheppard said it should have little direct influence on Eastern Fresh.

“With H-2A, we’re already above minimum wage,” he said. “Most of our workers are above minimum wage, so it’s not a terrible problem for us.”

Harvesters who work on a per-piece scale, in particular, are well above minimum wage, he said.

Still, Sheppard said, if the minimum wage will be raised, it should be done at the federal level so states can’t benefit when nearby states raise their minimum wages.

“It makes us less competitive with our neighbors,” Sheppard said.

The prospect of a higher minimum wage in New Jersey has some growers worried, said Ben Casella, field representative for the New Jersey Farm Bureau, Trenton.

One of them is Jamie Graiff, a partner and sales manager of Newfield, N.J.-based Daniel Graiff Farms LLC.

“The minimum wage hike will be a large hit on us,” he said.

Without even considering overtime pay, a higher minimum wage will likely cost Graiff Farms an extra $200,000 per year, Graiff said.

It’s one of the reasons the company is investing in a new wash line for its 15,000-square-foot summer expansion.

“We’re getting a little more automated so we don’t have to rely on so many people.”

 

Changing face of labor

Cedarville-based Nardelli Bros. Inc. has a core group of workers it can count on year in and year out, president Bill Nardelli said.


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