Online reviews from people who have worked at West Liberty Foods share a couple of common themes.
“They say it’s a great place to work and the pay is good, but they work you like a dog,” said Debbie Hodson, human resources manager at the massive meat-processing plant in Tremonton.
With the local job market so strong lately, West Liberty Foods and other area employers are having trouble finding enough workers to meet their demand.
While being “too busy” might be a good problem for a business to have, it presents its own set of challenges for employers. Not only are there fewer unemployed people to recruit, companies often have to increase pay, benefits, or find other creative ways to keep the people they already have.
At West Liberty, managers are hoping the solution will be to redesign employee work schedules to allow for more days off, giving their associates.
“We’ve had to strategically rethink our labor structure and how we keep our associates,” Plant Manager Mike Pierce said.
Pierce said the plant, which prepares various meat products for Subway restaurants and other commercial customers, is currently operating at 120 percent of capacity. That means production often runs over into weekends, and while many employees welcome the overtime, it can mean burnout for some — especially during a booming economy.
“In this climate, many of our associates don’t want that many hours,” Pierce said. “We’re having to rethink how to better serve our associates.”
Pierce tasked managers at the West Liberty plant with coming up with ideas about how to keep employees happy, and managers took employee suggestions on the subject. They came up with a new work schedule in which employees will work longer but fewer shifts, giving them three or four days off every week.
“The main idea is to give them more family time, and to come back refreshed and rejuvenated,” Pierce said, “and in working one 12-hour shift instead of two eights, we find they can get more done.”
The rescheduling is going plant-wide in phases over the six weeks or so, with rotating schedules so that all employees get a true Saturday-Sunday weekend off at least once a month.
While the new schedule will eliminate a lot of overtime, it isn’t necessarily a net savings for the company because they will need to hire dozens more people to make it work. Pierce said the plant is looking to add 54 people as soon as possible, mostly in its rapidly growing water-based and individual quick-frozen product lines. And that’s just to accommodate the schedule changes at a facility that is already short nearly 30 employees based on the amount of work available.
But finding that many people isn’t as easy as it might have been 10 years ago, a problem that goes well beyond the boundaries of the West Liberty plant.
“A lot of other businesses are hitting the same wall,” he said. “There’s a dire need out there. Everyone is vying for that same 0.2 percent of unemployment.”
Pierce acknowledges that the new system isn’t necessarily a win for every individual, but believes it will be a solution to keep the workforce more content as a unit.
“Some are upset to be losing their overtime, but I have to look at the whole group,” he said.
All of this restructuring is creating a lot of temporary work for the human resources department. On a visit last week, Hodson had two large but neat stacks of paperwork on her desk as she and her team reworked schedules for most of the more than 630 employees at the plant.
“We hope by promoting these longer shifts and more days off, we can draw more people in,” she said.
West Liberty is working on other ways to get more people in, including working with the Utah Transit Authority to bring bus service from Cache Valley and northern Weber County, which could help the plant tap into a much larger labor pool.
West Liberty is hosting an in-house job fair from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. this Saturday, July 14 to recruit more people into its ranks. Supervisors and mangers will be conducting interviews on the spot, and making job offers that day. Those interested can find more information online at careers.wlfoods.com.
The plant is also implementing more tried-and-true methods like pay raises, but Pierce is finding that there is no silver bullet for the challenge of the labor shortage.
“In this environment you need a combination of things,” he said. “We’re hoping people will see that now they can get good pay along with hours that are conducive to family living.”