A devastating hurricane that struck Puerto Rico last fall has unexpectedly helped fill vacancies in the local poultry industry.
“We are happy to have some folks who come up here from Puerto Rico,” said Tom Hensley, president of Fieldale Farms, which operates in Gainesville, Murrayville and Cornelia. “We have succeeded a little bit (in recruiting them).”
It makes good business sense for Fieldale, which has up to 300 jobs to fill, according to Hensley.
Puerto Ricans are American citizens, so they require no green card or worker visa to relocate here and find a job.
“They can come on in and start working,” Hensley said.
Fieldale works with a human resources recruiter to attract qualified workers from Puerto Rico, according to Hensley, and is providing housing in the short term while they get settled.
Hensley said the general worker-retention rate at Fieldale is “not that good.”
Only about half of all new hires last for more than a year, but Hensley projects that Fieldale will retain about 70 percent of workers from Puerto Rico for that length of time.
Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation, said the number of vacancies in the industry goes in cycles.
But a prolonged shortage of workers has prompted local plants to find new ways to fill jobs.
“It’s been a high demand (industry), and supply hasn’t kept up,” Giles said.
The local poultry industry has long been filled with immigrant Latino workers, accounting for about 70 percent of Fieldale’s workforce in 2004.
Now, however, just 1 in 4 workers is Latino, a result of crackdowns on undocumented workers, a growing number of refugees from other countries and other demographic swings.
Meanwhile, the unemployment rate in Hall ticked up in June to 3.4 percent from 2.8 percent in May, but it remains the lowest in the state.
The number of people working in Hall County, and the number of people looking for work, is at an all-time high, according to the Georgia Department of Labor.
The bottom line: jobs are plenty.
And so there may be an opportunity for residents of Puerto Rico still recovering from the toll of the hurricane to find work here and support their families back home.
“People are desperate for work …” Hensley said.
According to a study by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, an estimated 5,000 people may have died in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria – a Category 4 storm with winds in excess of 110 mph.
Much of the country languished without power and running water for months.
Hensley said Fieldale is proud to be able to support Puerto Ricans in need of work, but he’s also practical about his own demands.
“I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say we need the workers,” he said.