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Labor Matters

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

Three Must-Do Labor Management Tasks for Dairy Producers in 2012

Feb 16, 2012

Here’s good advice on I-9 compliance, employee handbooks and improved communication with your employees.

Miltner photo   CopyBy Ryan Miltner, attorney
For this post, I want to depart from my usual discussion of immigration-specific labor issues and offer to you three items for your operations review. 
  1. 1.       Make Sure That You Are Complying With I-9 Requirements. 
Recently, Anthony Raimondo wrote a very good article on reviewing I-9 records and procedures that all producers should read. I don't want to rehash all that he wrote. In fact, my recommendation is very basic. 
Take some time to ensure that your farm is obtaining all required I-9 form from workers on your farm. Federal law requires that you complete an I-9 form each time that you hire any person to provide labor or services in the United States in return for wages or other remuneration. 
This requirement is perhaps the most basic statement of the law on employment eligibility verification. I suspect that the vast majority of readers are already aware of this requirement. In the past year, however, I spoke directly with three different farmers who were unaware of the requirement to verify employment eligibility for all employees. Even if you employ only a few employees that you personally know to be United States citizens, or even if you have no Hispanic employees, the I-9 requirements apply to your business. Incidentally, if you are not a producer, know that these requirements apply to all employers, not just farms. So many small businesses are unaware of these specific requirements because they haven't been told by their accountant, attorney or other consultant of them. Sometimes the question is simply not addressed. Other times, compliance is presumed. 
Do yourself a big favor this year. If you are even a little unsure if you are in compliance, find out. A very good resource, in addition to this blog, is the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Handbook for Employers.

2.       Review (or Create) an Employee Manual.

Every employer should have a basic employee manual, handbook or procedures guide. This manual should set forth all of the policies and procedures related to employment. It should spell out your policies on attendance, job descriptions, expected performance, and related issues. Depending on your individual situation, it might also explain employee discipline, policies on sexual harassment, and policies in discrimination. 
In addition to these "employment issues," many farms have begun to develop written procedures for the expectations of employees when milking, feeding, moving animals, administering medications, handling hospital pens, withholding times for sick animals, culling cows, and general animal husbandry, among other areas. Basic guidelines for many of these areas can be found online, through cooperatives or trade groups, or by contacting your state extension. For other topics, it may be advisable to contact an employment attorney. 
The principal benefit of developing a manual of policies and procedures is that employees will know your expectations--if you see that the manual is reviewed with employees. Once you have your manual decoupled or reviewed, take the next important step. Personally review the manual with your workers, new and existing. Spend a few hours discussing both the contents and the reasons underlying your expectations. Answer the employees' questions. Make sure that all employees understand that the manual is not a collection of goals and ideals but are expectations aimed at having a safe workplace, healthy cows, and a productive operation. Review the manual periodically yourself and with all employees.

3.        Make It a Goal To Improve Communication With Employees.

Communicating about an employee manual is only one area where workers need your input. One professional who works closely with producers and their employees related to me that too many employees think that the owner of the farm doesn't really care. Well, we know that isn't the case in most operations. But this is one instance where perception is reality. If your employees believe that you don't really care about quality, then for all intents and purposes, you don't care. 
Especially as operations get larger, either in terms of cows or diversification across the farm's products, farm owners necessarily rely on managers to communicate expectations to lower level workers. In doing so, make sure that you don't become too distanced from your employees. As an example, consider the ubiquitous dry-erase board in the milking parlor where messages are relayed to milkers. The dry-erase board is a good tool but a lousy substitute for real communication and instruction. Don't allow Sharpie markers to become your only interaction with workers. Important issues deserve face time, real instruction, and explanation. Not only will your message be better understood, but your employees will appreciate the expression of importance.
From a risk standpoint, one of the producer's single largest risks is the disgruntled employee. How can you avoid the angry (and possibly vengeful) worker? Simply talk to him. Not only when a problem arises but throughout the year. How many employees do you have on your farm? And how long would it take to spend one hour with each--30 minutes on the job, 30 minutes in your office? Not long in the overall picture. 
Observe. Instruct, in a constructive manner. Ask genuinely about worker concerns and areas where the worker sees areas for operational improvement. Invest in the human capital of your operation. Explain how the farm's goals at reducing cell counts or increasing production affect employees. Consider incentivizing, if appropriate. 
Happy workers result in a farm operating at high efficiency and fewer labor problems over the long run. 
Have any other suggestions for labor management you wish to share? Leave your comments below for other producers to review.
Ryan Miltner is an agricultural and estate planning lawyer in private practice. His agricultural practice is focused on dairy policy and the economic regulation of the dairy industry. The opinions in this article are his own observations prepared for Dairy Today and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any of his clients. Contact him at ryan@miltnerlawfirm.com.
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