Chicken products were a hot commodity early on in the COVID-19 pandemic. Consumers favored it so much that it created shortages and caused prices to skyrocket. Unfortunately, some of those problems still exist, but the reason for it is different. Now, a labor shortage is causing turmoil in the industry.
Chicken processors in Georgia — where more poultry is produced than anywhere else in the U.S. — say they’re having trouble finding workers. That’s leading to inventory problems and higher prices at the meat counter.
A report from Foodmarket.com describes an instance at the Wayne Farms chicken processing facility in Pendergrass, Georgia. The company said it had 200 openings on its production line earlier this month that it had to fill to keep up with demand, but fewer than five people applied. Wayne Farms said it’s having the same bad luck at nine of its other operations, with about one in four production positions begging for a worker.
Another Georgia chicken processor, Fieldale Farms, said it is 1,000 workers shy of having a full complement. “We have 3,700. We should have 4,700. It’s the worst it’s ever been,” said Tom Hensley, the company’s president.
Unemployment supplement change may bring back workers
Processing chicken is not an easy gig to begin with. Workers have to stand to do their job, carve up more than 100 birds per minute, plus do it in 40-degree temperatures just to keep the meat fresh. Given a choice between that and a $300 pandemic unemployment check, many workers are simply staying at home.
Those conditions may be changing soon, though. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp announced that he’s putting a stop to the $300 weekly federal supplements for unemployed workers effective June 26. Georgia’s Labor Commissioner Mark Butler doubled down on that position, saying that the state’s 200,000+ jobless benefit recipients will have to prove they’re actually applying for jobs — a stipulation that was suspended during the pandemic.
In the meantime, chicken prices are going up
The imperfect storm of having fewer workers and fast-food chains going all-in on chicken is starting to cause problems for consumers.
According to YCharts, the current wholesale price for chicken is $2.26, up from $1.89 last month and $1.27 a year ago. That’s a jump of over 20% from April and more than 78% from one year ago. Prices for wings have made the highest leap. They recently set a record at $2.92 a pound, 180% higher than what they were before the pandemic.
While no fast-food company has said it’s raising prices on chicken products yet, they’re also wrestling with having to pay more for chicken meat. “We are just absorbing that for now and plugging away,” said Executive Chef Brian Morris at Nashville hot chicken chain Hattie B’s.