Greeen County cheese maker deals with employee churn

Wendy Cuevas, human resources manager for Klondike Cheese in Monroe, attends a recent job fair in Green County. The event drew 24 employers advertising 670 job openings, but only 42 job-seekers attended.

In her almost 30 years working in human resources, Wendy Cuevas has never experienced the kind of difficulty hiring workers as she has today.

At Monroe-based Klondike Cheese, where Cuevas is human resources manager, she has hired 188 temporary and full-time workers over the past year — for a company that only has 205 employees total. The starting wage is $13 an hour.

So far, 131 of them have left, some of them fired for missing too many days, others quitting because the work or commute is too difficult, or because it's easy to find another job, she said.

"It takes me so many people to get one that gets in and stays," Cuevas said. "I spend so much time training people. They’re late. They don’t show up. … I was raised in a time when work was the most important thing. (Now it’s) 'I can get another job tomorrow.'"

Cuevas has worked in human resources at different companies since 1988 and said it has never been this difficult to find workers with basic "employability skills" such as the ability to show up on time. Sometimes employees wouldn't show up at all, she said, because of car trouble, lack of child care and court appearances.

The difficulty persists despite the company offering health and dental benefits, a 1.8 percent 401(k) match, an annual 5 percent profit-sharing 401(k) contribution and two years ago bumping up starting pay from $10 to $13 an hour, or about $33,800 a year based on the required 50-hour work week.

Employees often earn more than that by sometimes working mandatory overtime shifts on Saturdays, but Cuevas acknowledges the labor is hard and keeps workers on their feet for long stretches.

"I’ve seen where it’s difficult to get employees," Cuevas said. "I’ve never seen where people don’t stay."

But Pat Schramm, CEO of the Workforce Development Board of South Central Wisconsin, said the going rate for starting manufacturing wages is now in the $15 to $18 an hour range, depending on where the company is located. Those paying $10 to $13 are now finding themselves in the lower range.

"The guys who aren’t going to pay are not going to stay in business," Schramm said. "There’s too much competition."

The tight job market was illustrated at a recent job fair at Blackhawk Technical College's Monroe campus, which Cuevas attended. Twenty-four employers advertised 670 job openings, but only 42 job-seekers attended.

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.