Quincy tomato producer struggles to find workers ahead of harvest

Hundreds of workers are needed this fall
Posted at 6:22 PM, Jul 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-15 19:26:34-04

QUINCY, Fla. (WTXL) — Workers are in short supply for many businesses in the Big Bend of Florida and South Georgia.

As businesses Rebound from the pandemic, things have not been all that easy for a local tomato producer who is scrambling to hire before the next harvest.

“Everything went fine last fall. Nobody sick,” explained Graves Williams. He owns Gadsden Tomato Company in Quincy. We first introduced you to him in the spring of 2020 as the pandemic was shutting businesses down.

Using anti-viral equipment, face masks, shields and gloves, he was able to keep hundreds of workers healthy. He even survived COVID-19 himself, however, recently, he says it’s been impossible to get workers. “I work 650 people. I’m going to say I’ve got 400 right now. I’m short 250,” Williams said.

He blames that shortage on unemployment benefits.

“When you find one, they don’t last a day. They say they don’t want to work this hard. I can do better on unemployment,” Williams shared.

While that could be part of the problem, Dr. Rich Templin, Director of Politics and Public Policy for Florida’s American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, said there are other factors at play.

“The pandemic has reset the economy,” explained Templin. He said those out of work may be holding out for higher-paying jobs with more benefits. “Labor is now valuable. Labor is now saying, ‘hey, we want a little more before we come back to work,’” Templin added.

Williams has worked to adjust.

“I’m paying the highest wage I’ve ever paid, and it has made no difference,” Williams said. He added many of the workers he hires can make as much as $1,000 a week. Without the workers, impacts will be felt from harvest to shipping.

“There are multiple people who actually load our trucks,” explained Christopher McDonald, Williams’ shipping manager. “If we’re short a forklift driver or someone who can help, it delays the tomatoes from being shipped to wherever they’re going.”

That could force Williams to cut back production. Williams said he helps workers get the COVID vaccine if they want it. Workers also wear masks and shields for an extra layer of protection. His next harvest season runs from September through November.