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Experts cover today’s key dairy labor issues and offer fool-proof techniques to optimize employee performance, sat­isfaction and longevity.

Is Human Resource Management the Weak Link at Your Dairy?

Jun 13, 2011

With employment litigation now the fastest-growing area of U.S. lawsuits, turning a blind eye to human resource principles opens your dairy to the threat of costly legal action.

Anthony Raimondo 2010 06 photoBy Anthony Raimondo, attorney

One of the very best traits of the dairy industry is the fact that the industry is dominated by family farms. While the industry takes justifiable pride in the families that populate it, there are times when this strength can become a weakness.  For example, when the term “human resources” is mentioned, many dairymen immediately react with the thought that human resources is a tool for big business, not the family farmer.

Employment litigation remains the fastest-growing area of litigation in the U.S., and turning a blind eye to human resource principles is to ignore the threat that such litigation poses to the family farm. A single lawsuit, by the time it is done, can cost a dairy hundreds of thousands of dollars. In years past, such a risk could be tolerated as part of the general risks of doing business, but in today’s fragile dairy economy, that risk could spell disaster for farm families. 

The degree of human resource management that is needed depends greatly upon the size and circumstances of the dairy. A larger operation might need to dedicate a full-time employee to manage human resource issues, while a smaller farm might be fine simply assigning responsibility to a family member or employee in addition to other duties.  Regardless of how the particular dairy approaches human resource management, there are essential tools that must be in place. Some key ones are:

1. Employee Handbooks.  An employee handbook is a critical tool to protecting the farm from potential claims. Handbooks make established rules and procedures clear and undeniable, and establish the dairy’s expectations for employees. If a dairy is accused of discrimination, it is incredibly valuable to point to a handbook to find the rule that was the reason for the termination. Too often, even dairy producers who recognize the importance of handbooks make the mistake of using generic templates or handbooks created for other businesses as a basis for a dairy handbook.  But agriculture is a unique industry, and dairy is unique with in agriculture. For a handbook to be effective, it must be tailored to the policies and practices of the dairy.

2. Recordkeeping.  Like it or not, modern society expects businesses to have records. Dairies should have a personnel file on each worker with the employee’s personal information, I-9 form, W-4 form, and other documents related to the employee. I-9 forms should be separately stored so that they can be easily produced in the event of an audit. All dairies should have time clocks and detailed payroll records, especially in California, where wage and hour lawsuits against dairies are an epidemic. If employees break the rules or perform poorly, the action must be documented in the personnel file.  Such records can provide the dairy with the tools to defend itself if accused of discrimination or other wrongdoing. The records also need to be kept for time periods dictated by law.

3. Communication. Dairies are often challenged by the fact that the employees speak predominantly Spanish, while owners often speak only English. It is critical to have an effective means to communicate with workers, and to keep notes to document conversations. Lawsuits and union organizing may end up being about money, but they almost always start with anger and bitterness. One labor dispute started at a California dairy because an employee was upset at being moved from an outside position to a milking position without explanation. With no outlet to voice his complaint, the worker became increasingly bitter, until he ultimately led the charge in a multi-employee lawsuit against the dairy. It is critical to have a clearly explained process for employees to raise their concerns in a way that will ensure that their concerns are heard and addressed. This does not mean giving in to every demand, but it does mean sending the message that the employer is listening, and will explain why the dairy is doing what it is doing. Efforts to resolve employee grievances must be documented so that the dairy can prove the actual chain of events if it has to in litigation.

While not every family farm needs a dedicated human resource department, every farm needs to address human resource management in some manner. Too many dairies are caught up in difficult litigation without the tools to defend themselves. While there is no way to absolutely prevent accusations from being made, effective human resource management will reduce the risk of litigation, and will put the dairy in a position of strength to defend itself if litigation arises.  Family farms remain a treasure in the industry, one that deserves to be protected through implementation of human resource tools.

The goal of this article is to provide employers with current labor and employment law information in a general way.  Individual circumstances vary widely, and consultation with a lawyer is the only way to make sure legal requirements are being met in a given instance.  The contents should not be interpreted or construed as legal advice or opinion. For individual responses to questions or concerns regarding any given situation, the reader should consult with Anthony Raimondo at McCormick Barstow LLP in Fresno, at (559) 433-1300.

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