Right now, it seems that just about every employer is experiencing staffing shortages. For most of them, it’s a new experience. But for many farmers, it’s hard to even remember a time when they weren’t short-staffed. Farm work has never been a popular occupation during my lifetime, and it’s safe to say it’s gotten even less so in the last ten years. A majority of ag workers in California are legal citizens of Mexico, and the federal government has an official policy of not allowing them entry despite widespread acknowledgement that farms in the U.S. depend on them 100%. California’s efforts to improve working conditions on farms — raising the minimum wage, changing overtime requirements and numerous safety rules — have not succeeded in luring native born Americans into agriculture, even during the recession of the early 2000s.
Over the years, we’ve adapted to the scarcity of workers by mechanizing numerous tasks, changing crops, and simply reducing our production. There’s no point in planting a crop that you don’t have enough employees to take care of and harvest. Most other farmers have done the same — it’s the primary reason why mechanically harvested nut crops have become California’s biggest crop.
So going into our winter break this year, Terra Firma was already understaffed. But with all the rain, we were able to move a few people over from other tasks — primarily irrigation of course — onto our harvest crew. But during the break, several of our staff returned to Mexico for the winter. Meanwhile, the rain has stopped and it’s time to start irrigating, pruning, planting and cultivating.
Up until now, the only person at Terra Firma who had gotten Covid was yours truly, after my wife got it in 2020 when she was exposed to someone at work who had attended a conference in New York. Ironically, I was also the first person on the farm to get Omicron, when I traveled back east for the holidays. On Monday we got our second Omicron case, and today, the third (none of the cases are related, so far). We all know what this trend line looks like. Thankfully, our employees do not appear to be contracting Covid at work from each other. But everyone’s kids go to the same schools.
We had a few “close calls” with staff during 2020, but nothing since, and illness was not an issue for us at all during the previous stages of the pandemic. Now, however, we are looking at a very good possibility of Omicron affecting our workplace the way it has been doing with workplaces across the state and country. Even a handful of absent employees for a week or more at a time would have serious impacts on our ability to get even the minimum of critical tasks done: picking and packing your boxes; planting and irrigating the crops.
Back in 2020, the federal government responded to the potential threat that Covid posed with programs like tax rebates to individuals, unlimited sick leave and PPP loans. Now, despite many more people contracting Omicron and missing work then contracted the previous variants, there is apparently no discussion of re-starting any programs. Most people used their “Covid stimulus” funds up long ago. Likewise many businesses with their PPP funds. And it’s not just government assistance that has ended. There is not even any current guidelines from the federal or state government about sick leave. Employers are left to figure it out themselves: how long after a positive Covid test should an employee be given paid leave, etc.
At Terra Firma, we are lucky to have not used our much of our PPP loan — although we did have to pay a 10% tax on it to the state of California as a result. We kept the rest of the money as a reserve account, “just in case”. Now, almost two years since we received it, we may end up having to using it to pay employee sick time and help offset the loss in revenue that will occur if we have a significant number of our staff out due to illness.
Up until now, Covid has been making us tired, stressed, and sad. But at some point soon, people will start to get angry. Not at mask mandates, or unvaccinated people, but at our leaders who seem to have moved on from Covid and are busy arguing among themselves about other issues.