Gubsa Tomelso drove old, 25-person buses back in his native Ethiopia for years.
So he had no qualms when he began driving his George’s Inc. coworkers to the plant for their second shift in a 14-person 2019 Ford Transit van.
“It’s easy — no problem,” said Tomelso , 41, of Harrisonburg.
Six months ago, George’s Inc., which has a poultry plant in Harrisonburg, leased five vans for workers to form car pools.
“We started right off with five vans, and every one of them was pretty vacant for the first four weeks,” said Quentin Custer, the human resources manager of George’s Inc. in Harrisonburg. “We considered them rolling billboards at first.”
But ridership began to grow steadily, and now roughly 60 to 70 workers use the vans every day, Custer said.
Now, Tomelso said he usually picks up about 10 passengers on the way to work, and he takes 13 of his fellow workers back to their respective homes.
Riders in the van said they found the service helpful for getting to work.
Brian Lopez, a George’s worker, used to walk 35 minutes to the plant before the van pool was introduced.
Lopez said he signed up for the van pool as soon as he found out about it.
Frank Tamberrino, the president and CEO of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce, said transportation is regularly cited as an issue employers face in finding workers.
“People are trying to get a bit more creative than maybe they were five to 10 years ago in trying to expand the labor pool and making it easier for employees to have access to jobs,” he said.
Labor was not the sole driver for the program, though it did play a role in setting it up, Custer said.
George’s doesn’t have a high turnover rate, he said, adding that the plant celebrated both a 30-year and 40-year anniversary of workers in the last two weeks.
The average turnover in the poultry industry is 65%, according to a 2018 survey of 40 poultry plants around the country conducted by the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association.
“People think there’s not enough workers, but the truth is you treat people well enough, there are,” Custer said.
A George’s staff survey led to the conversation about transportation, he said.
The vans are supplied by the Commute with Enterprise program, which partnered with George’s, Custer said.
The program cost George’s $60,000, he said, but the company dooes not charge the employees to drive or ride them.
However, the company is considering a small fee, as the vans are filling up and the company needs to be sure that people will actually use them if workers tell the driver they want a spot, Custer said.
Two vans make rounds for the first shift, while three vans pick employees up for the second shift — all driven by George’s workers, such as Tomelso, Custer said.
Routes go through Harrisonburg, Bridgewater and Dayton, Verona and Clover Hill, as well as Broadway.
Custer also said he expects the program to grow as the weather gets colder.
“We could talk about employment all day long, but the parking lot is terrible — getting 50 people out of the parking lot is a good deal,” he said. “Consistency in attendance — people are comfortable with it.”
The benefit to the environment also played into the decision, Custer said.
And it’s not just the Harrisonburg plant with van pools, he said.
The George’s plant in Edinburg has a similar program, but with 11 vans that travel up to two hours to bring staff to the plant, according to Custer. The Edinburg drivers don’t work in the plant, he said.
For Tomelso, the short drive picking up co-workers is nothing compared to the three- or six-hour hauls he used to regularly do in Ethiopia, he said.
“In America, cars are all automatic,” Tomelso said, motioning to the gear shift of the Ford van. “In my country, they’re all manual — three gears.”
After coming to the United States a decade ago, he quickly got his license and has been driving ever since.
Another benefit to Tomelso is that driving the van allows the Kia family car to be available for his wife while he is at work until around 2 a.m.
“I have a baby, so now if they need shopping or Walmart — she goes,” he said. “It’s very helpful.”