By DAN WHEAT
WENATCHEE, Wash. -- Stemilt Growers Inc., the state's largest tree fruit company, will hold its annual job fair May 13 as the industry prepares for cherry season.
Labor remains tight, industry sources say.
As is its custom, Stemilt plans to hire about 900 people at the ninth annual fair -- 1 to 6 p.m. at the Wenatchee Convention Center -- mainly for sorting and packing cherries from mid-June to mid-August.
The company's warehouse labor situation is OK right now but time will tell if it tightens, said Zach Williams, Stemilt's director of human resources. The job fair usually fills about 50 percent of labor needed for Stemilt cherry packing, he said. Everyone who comes to the job fair will be interviewed, he said.
A record 1,546 people applied for jobs at the fair in 2010 and a Stemilt spokeswoman at the time credited the turnout to high unemployment of the recession. It filled 701 jobs and the remaining applications were held in reserve.
Wenatchee WorkSource, the local office of the state Department of Employment Security, usually helps with the fair.
Stemilt processes as many applicants as it can because turnover in cherry sorting can be high. People find the work more physically demanding than they think it will be.
Stemilt's orchard labor needs are generally handled separately from the job fair.
Andy Gale, general manager of Stemilt AgServices, a subsidiary that manages Stemilt's 8,000 acres of company-owned and leased orchards, said labor remains tight, as it has been for several years.
"We've been able to get our pruning and spring work done and we're looking at hiring a few more H-2A (foreign guestworkers)," Gale said. The company has invested in more H-2A housing, he said.
Stemilt AgServices has about 300 regular, year-round orchard workers and supplements them with any domestic workers it can get and 250 H-2A workers for apple thinning and cherry harvest, he said. The company hires more H-2A workers, for a total of 350 to 400, for apple harvest, he said.
That number is growing because of more production of Honeycrisp apples. They take more time to pick because they often require more than one picking and stems have to be clipped to avoid bruising and puncturing of the skin of apples.
Gebbers Farms, in Brewster, had 1,347 H-2A workers in 2012, its government affairs director Jon Wyss said last year. He could not be reached for comment.
Zirkle Fruit Co., Selah, will hire 1,000 H-2A workers for June through late October, a 10 percent increase from last year, said Mark Zirkle, company president.
"Right now orchard labor is as tight as we've ever seen it," Zirkle said.
Warehouse labor for apples is never tight but having enough sorters for cherries can be a challenge, he said. The company is accepting sorter applications now and will through the end of cherry season, he said.
McDougall & Sons Inc., Wenatchee, brought in 75 H-2A workers in March, earlier than it ever has, to supplement the company's regular crew of 60 for pruning and spring planting.
The company was glad it did so and will hire 300 more H-2A workers in early June for apple thinning and cherry harvest, said Scott McDougall, co-president.
Another 125 will come in mid-August for a total of 500 H-2A workers for apple harvest into early November, he said. The company this spring added six more housing units of 12 beds each to reach 500 beds.
McDougall said labor remains as tight as it's ever been as he's not able to find any seasonal domestic orchard workers.
McDougall & Sons doesn't have near the need of the larger Stemilt in cherry sorters and packers and is able to get returning domestic workers for that, he said.