The world loves to discuss wine. Varieties, production methods, tasting, and sommeliers are timeless topics that transcend generations and foster relationships. Less popular, however, are discussions focused on the workforce that is so crucial to industry success. In 2018, the U.S. wine industry faces a monstrous labor shortage that, if left unaddressed, could impact production in a major way.
Like many harvest workers, a large number of wine laborers are immigrants that cross borders on a seasonal basis to provide for their families. A turbulent political climate coupled with an influx of high-paying jobs created by devastating natural disasters has significantly lowered the pool of available employees for winemakers in California.
The state of California has been ravaged by devastating wildfires over the past year. In addition to creating a concern for worker safety, wildfire damage has opened up a host of opportunities related to clean-up and relief. Construction companies require extra hands to help rebuild the homes and businesses destroyed by the fires. Some actively recruit migrant workers, shadowing over the available opportunities in the wine industry by leveraging year-long work and higher pay.
Winemakers have done their best to combat competing job offers. Some vineyards have even implemented pay increases — raising wages as high as $30.00 per hour. The industry is limited, however, by shorter work seasons and legal regulations.
Some vineyards are opting to employ seasonal migrant workers on an H-2A Visa in order to increase the attractiveness of their job offers. Under this Visa, employers are obligated to provide transportation from Mexico and seasonal housing for employees. While meeting these requirements can go a long way for a potential employee, it also forces employers to incur additional costs that prevent them from keeping up with the wages being offered in the construction industry.
In addition to the natural barriers posed by Mother Nature over the last couple of years, vineyards are also baring the consequences of a turbulent political climate wrought with changes to immigration policies. In particular, escalating hostilities on the US-Mexico border have many regular migrant workers opting not to risk crossing, regardless of legal status.
It’s not only the danger associated with an immigration policy that could change at any minute that is causing hesitation. The country has seemingly noticed an increase in anti-immigrant activity across the board, which only adds to the possibility of an unsafe season for potential workers. The fear is widespread, requiring heavy benefit offers from vineyards if they are going to be overcome.
Some vineyards are turning to technology to help them keep up during the harvest season, although many small and medium-sized brands are unable to afford the upfront costs associated with the acquisition and implementation of machinery. Others posit that machines are incapable of harvesting in such a way that crucial flavor profiles (in white wines in particular) are preserved.
One thing is for sure, however. If the 2017 and 2018 harvest seasons were adequate predictors of future seasons, there is no relief in sight for the wine industry’s ongoing labor shortage.