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Worker shortage disrupts Kern businesses


Bolthouse Farms is offering a $500 hiring bonus as a way of attracting job seekers at a time employment applications have fallen to historical lows.

A lack of available workers is crimping business in Kern County, forcing operational changes in the worst cases while increasing the workload for existing staffs and raising employers' costs.

Recent examples include a major agricultural employer having to introduce a hiring bonus, a sharp drop in the county's pool of substitute teachers and reductions in local bus service with the possibility of more changes to come.

As part of a national shortage that has emerged after COVID-19 stay-at-home orders were lifted, the situation has renewed discussion of potential unintended effects of improved unemployment benefits during the pandemic, as well as employers' recruitment and retention efforts.

Bakersfield job-recruitment CEO Laura Hill said the lack of workers extends across a broad range of positions but that most are in lower-earning employment categories and administrative professionals. She said companies that normally do their own recruitment, or contract a temporary-employment agency, are now contracting her company, Pinnacle Recruitment Services.

She added that only about 50 job seekers attended a job fair she was at earlier this month. Two years ago, it probably would have drawn 2,500, she estimated.

"Not only are companies struggling to find any available workers," she wrote in an email, "there is a trend of employees not showing up for a job interview or even their first day of employment."

"This is putting tremendous pressure on both companies and their current workforce who have to make up the hours represented by open roles," Hill continued.

Bolthouse Farms recently unveiled a $500 hiring bonus — its first such incentive in at least a decade — after experiencing a shortfall of applications for skilled and unskilled positions. Senior Vice President Rachel Serrano said the company usually has about 100 open positions to fill, but that lately the tally exceeds 350.

Ironically, the rate of incoming applications is up fivefold, she said. By the time the company calls the job candidate, the person has already found a job: "People don't stay on the market that long," she said.

Another recent change is that applicants are more likely to say they're looking for a career path or greater professional development, Serrano said, and so the locally based carrot giant is trying to offer those things.

But it's also had to boost wages by as much as $5 per hour, and had to look for ways to offset higher employment costs.

Meanwhile, as some employees quit after a week of employment before applying for jobless benefits, Serrano said, those workers who remain are having to work extra shifts and are experiencing fatigue.

"It is becoming challenging to continue at the pace that we're continuing (in order) to meet the demands of our customers," she said.

Golden Empire Transit District announced last week it has recently struggled to find enough drivers to staff its scheduled bus routes. It said preparations are underway to reduce service as necessary on a day-to-day basis.

Passengers were urged to check for changes on the district's online bus schedule, posted at GET also asked riders to be kind to drivers showing up for work.

A similar challenge is playing out at the Bakersfield City School District, which this month notified parents it was forced to make changes to its bus routes, partly because of an increase in special education routes but mainly because of a "lack of qualified bus drivers in our community."

"We have positions available and we offer all training necessary, but the job pool is scarce," the district stated.

Local schools are also dealing with a shortage of substitute teachers. The Kern County Superintendent of Schools said that since Sept. 20, 2019, its pool of subs has declined 45 percent to hit 1,105 earlier this month.

Hill, at Pinnacle Recruitment, suspects the eventual end of unemployment benefits will bring workers back. But it remains to be seen, she noted, whether employees accepting jobs now will "reap the benefit" while others sitting out will be left to make their way in a more competitive job market.

Bakersfield human resources specialist Robin Paggi said by email service industries are being hit hardest by the worker shortage. Observing that local restaurants have been unable to service customers for lack of help, she agreed that the tide will turn when unemployment benefits run out.

Cal State Bakersfield economist Richard Gearhart said by email effects of the shortage will soon become evident as restaurants offering lunch service, especially those downtown, face service delays.

Delivering and processing times will slow as well, he asserted, and employers will begin to rely more heavily on part-time staff and people only marginally attached to the workforce, such as teenagers and college students.

Quality of service will suffer even as wages rise, he said, adding that non-wage benefits will improve and employers will be more willing to give workers their preferred days off work. Businesses may be forced to offer employees child care to get some people back into the labor force, he said.

But Gearhart was not convinced that cutting unemployment benefits is a proper solution. He pointed to a 2016 study out of the University of Massachusetts Amherst concluding states that ended benefits saw minimal increases in employment and salaries but large reductions in consumer spending.