Labor Day at Rice Fruit Company is traditionally exactly that – a day of labor. In the past, Labor Day was one of the highest-volume shipping days for stone fruits. Those days are gone as the company focuses almost exclusively on early ripening varieties of apples such as Premier Honeycrisp. However, Rice Fruit is still bustling on Labor Day, with almost 200 essential workers receiving, storing, pre-sizing, packing, and shipping a fresh crop of crisp, premium eastern apples.
Getting apples ready for the retail shelf requires a tremendous amount of human input, and every step was made more complex by the COVID-19 pandemic. All onsite employees either self-report online or complete a health questionnaire before entering for their shift. Forklift drivers now have assigned equipment. The shipping and receiving office has plexiglass barriers. At least six feet separates work stations in the packinghouse. Workers have staggered arrival, departure, and break timing. They wear masks and other company-provided protective equipment. Common touch areas are sanitized regularly. Hand sanitizer dispensers were placed throughout the facility, and additional wash stations were installed to prevent crowding and improve hand washing processes.
Many office workers have been able to work remotely, but when onsite, every office area has barriers and air purifiers, and all employees must wear masks except when eating or drinking. An essential business bonus was added for all employees for onsite hours worked.
Making these changes presented a definite challenge during the initial months of COVID, especially when it was ushered in by two weeks of panic-buying that pushed production to its limits. But even during that demand, Rice Fruit researched best methods to protect workers and implemented many, such as masks, before they were required or even generally suggested. Ben Rice, president, says, “It was a never a question as to how seriously, or how rigorously, we would work to protect the health and safety of all our employees and their families throughout this pandemic. We knew it was something we needed to get right from day one, and then continue to improve from there.”
"So, things at Rice Fruit look different on Labor Day, with apples instead of peaches, and masks covering every face. But the spirit of the day is the same – to show respect and the utmost appreciation for workers who provide essential products and services to our country. Happy Labor Day," Rice concludes.