Labor shortages and heat lead to tough tides for WA shellfish farm

This article is part of Western work, a High Country News series produced in collaboration with The Guardian. Read the series here.

The job would be tough anywhere, but it’s especially grueling in Washington. Here, winter low tides – when the shells are harvested – occur in the middle of the night. That means farmers like Cordero came out in the freezing cold at midnight in January.

Like many of Taylor’s more than 600 workers, the largest producer of farmed shellfish in the country, Cordero started when he was young. The physical nature of the work is part of the reason the company’s workforce leans towards youth. But there’s also the appeal of working outdoors, on the scenic Washington Coast, and for an industry known for its durability. A solid, if unspectacular, salary was also an asset; even entry-level jobs can reach well above minimum wage.

Previously, the company could fill a vacancy in a matter of weeks. Now, in the midst of a remarkably tight labor market, this process can take four months. Taylor struggles to find technicians to raise oyster larvae, as well as farmers like Cordero. Last summer, the company’s workforce was a third lower than four years ago.

Part of that is COVID-19. Taylor downsized when demand for shellfish plummeted. When he tried to rehire workers, many did not return: they left the industry, or the region, or the workforce altogether. Shellfish farming, which has never appealed to everyone, seems even less attractive today.

Maybe it’s because in some ways the work is getting harder. Summer is the busiest season for shellfish farming – and climate change is making summers hotter. In 2021, for one week “heat dome”, temperatures in the region reached nearly 120 degrees, instead of the usual 70s and 80s. This has impacted Taylor’s hatchery in Quilcene, Wash., on the Puget Sound side of the Olympic Peninsula, where workers raise baby shellfish.

During the heat dome, hatchery workers arrived at 3 a.m. to protect the fledgling shellfish — and themselves — from the worst of the heat. They moved the animals from warm, shallow water to deeper, cooler water. They skipped the maintenance, so the shells wouldn’t be exposed to high temperatures. Despite their best efforts, some of the carefully selected algae that feed the baby shells have died. The extreme conditions also triggered a massive oyster mortality, both on farms and in the wild. At Taylor, workers work overtime sorting dead oysters from live ones.

Given the unpredictable spawnings, algal blooms and changing water pH levels – not to mention the heat – there is an overwhelming sense of insecurity even for Taylor, a company that is more than a century Old.

LIVING CONDITIONS workers also become more unstable.

In 2017, Trump administration officials exerted a major crackdown on immigration around Bay Center, where Cordero works. Dozens have been arrested. The shell labor, which has a strong Latino bias, was dug. Many have left the area; some have left the country altogether.

Those who stayed are finding life increasingly difficult. During the pandemic, city dwellers flocked to the Washington Coast. In the tiny Bay Center, a place that rented for $800 a month a few years ago now costs $1,200. Around Quilcene, the site of Taylor’s Hatchery, houses that were once rentals have been sold. The remaining rentals now cost $2,000 or $3,000 a month, not the pre-pandemic price of $1,000. A Taylor worker who lives in Port Townsend, a trendy town of about 10,000, pays $1,600 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.

The housing crisis has exacerbated the labor shortage, with applicants turning down jobs because they cannot find accommodation. “They look at the paycheck and they look at how much the rent is here, and it’s really tough,” said Molly Jackson, Quilcene hatchery manager. A woman Jackson recently hired parked her RV at the hatchery for three months until she found a more permanent spot.

Jackson now scours Facebook and Craigslist and calls friends to help prospective employees find housing. Taylor even briefly considered buying land in Quilcene for small houses owned by his employees. Partly due to high housing costs, the company has raised starting salaries – rates now range from $16.50 to $27 per hour, depending on the position – in addition to health and dental and of a 401k matching plan.

Taylor is also changing the way the work itself is done. This has turned some of the hatchery’s most onerous and time-consuming tasks — turning screens that hold baby oysters in water tanks, for example — into machines. The company sees mechanization as a win/win: a way to maintain production even with a significantly smaller workforce, while making it easier for the remaining employees to work. The company hopes this may encourage workers to stay a little longer.

This could be true of Ramiro Cordero. For most of his 25-year career, he harvested oysters one by one, straight from the water, a tedious task that required long hours and repeated bending. Now, instead of growing oysters on the seabed, Taylor plants them in bags, some of which hang over the sides of boats. When the oysters are ready, a machine hoists them up and the workers pick them at eye level, without bending over.

The task is always outdoors, rain or shine, in increasingly extreme weather conditions. But a harvest that once took a week can now take just a few hours, and it’s a lot less backbreaking. Another Bay Center farmer, who was considering retirement, now thinks he can last a few more years.

But he will eventually retire, just like Cordero. And it’s not yet clear whether Taylor’s higher salaries or his help finding housing will be enough to attract new employees. Although Taylor has hired nearly 100 new people over the past year, at the Bay Center the vacancy rate is still 40%.

Ricardo Morales, one of Cordero’s colleagues, said he didn’t mind the long hours in the pouring rain, although he added that in October, November, December you’ll wish you had taken that job at McDonald’s. or Dairy Queen instead. .” He enjoys working outdoors and doesn’t think he will ever leave the industry. Many of his friends and family, however, were pulled by a starting salary of $20 an hour in logging, or pushed by the immigration crackdown.

I asked Morales how the industry had changed over the decades he worked in it. He looked at the four men around him, standing in the middle of a large empty warehouse in Bay Center, and didn’t hesitate. “There are fewer people,” he said. “A lot of people just left.”

This story was produced for High Country News on October 3, 2022 and is republished here with permission.

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