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Managing seasonal labor transitions

September 3, 2014 -  By


Labor is, as we all know, the single largest cost on a maintenance company’s financial statement.  With that in mind, it’s imperative to implement good management strategies for reducing labor.

There are two labor transition cycles for a warm-season company and three for a cool-season company.

To keep it simple, a warm-season company’s two seasons of transition are spring and fall. In most Sun Belt markets, contractors provide landscape maintenance services to their customers’ properties for a full 12 months of the year. Labor is at its lowest in winter due to reduced service frequency.

Fall, in particular, presents an opportunity to reduce labor gradually as weather cools, days get shorter and plant/turf growth slows. When it comes to replacing seasonal workers, I recommend not replacing people who leave beginning in September. Most operations managers are slow to do layoffs. Frankly, no one really likes making them, so it’s natural to procrastinate and justify keeping employees on longer than they’re needed. If you find yourself short-handed, overtime can be used cost effectively.

The benefit of not replacing people who leave during the fall is it reduces the number of people who must be laid off. When the labor market tightens up, laying people off becomes problematic. It’s hard to find reliable, experienced crew members in the spring hiring season. Some companies have started to reduce hours, instituting four-day workweeks, seven-hour days or a hiatus at the holidays as alternatives to layoffs. This is becoming more common, and employees are beginning to expect it.

For cool-season or snow belt contractors, the landscape maintenance service cycle comes to a halt once temperatures drop and snow and ice set in. Since weather is unpredictable, snow contractors must manage the process carefully and aggressively. The downside could be a lack of trained crews for snow removal if too many people have been laid off.

The spring transition for warm-season companies is easier to manage than for snow belt companies, but it’s just as important. “When do you gear up?” is the big question. I always have felt that the longer you can hold out on expanding your crews, the less labor you will use during the long, hot summer. Ensuring nonroutine tasks such as planting, mulching and pruning don’t overlap is crucial to keeping labor costs in check.

For snow belt companies facing harsh weather patterns, strategically managing labor can be a challenge—especially when winter lingers into April and it becomes nearly impossible to prevent nonroutine tasks from overlapping. When this happens, take care not to gear up too fast and then not be able to deliver service due to weather.

Managing seasonal transitions is a balancing act and takes an experienced eye and sensible planning. That prep includes devising a contingency plan for emergencies or unexpected storms. Most companies fail to do the necessary planning then regret it when their profits are devoured by overtime.

For snow belt companies, the workload drops during mid-summer. July and August therefore provide an opportunity to manage the labor transition and not compromise costs. With September’s ramp-up period, widespread layoffs during July/August are a bad idea. Instead, stretch your dollars by reducing hours or creating four-day weeks.


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About the Author:

The author, of the Wilson-Oyler Group, is a 30-year industry veteran. Reach him at

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