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November 2011 Archive for Labor Matters

RSS By: Dairy Today: Labor Matters, Dairy Today

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

Another Two Years Lost on Immigration Reform

Nov 28, 2011

With the overall congressional approval rating running at about 12%, there aren't nearly enough members of Congress willing to lead on the critical immigration issue because they fear the backlash.

 
Miltner photo   CopyBy Ryan Miltner, attorney
 
As this congressional term comes to a close in a state of dysfunction perhaps unparalleled in recent history, it seems as though agricultural employers will face another year without any federal immigration reform. Obviously, 2011 will pass without reform. In all likelihood, 2012 will slip by as well.
 
Here is the reality of the current political climate. The Congress is divided between the parties. The range of bills that a Republican-controlled House would pass that a Democratic Senate would also approve is extraordinarily narrow. And the House and Senate each have a handful of legislators in both parties who would attempt to block any legislation that stands in contrast to their own. So, there is your minefield to navigate.
 
Did I mention it’s an election year? Did I really need to? 
 
In just over one month, the Presidential election circus will be coming to a state near you, beginning with the usual Iowa, New Hampshire and Florida. With the federal budget still in disarray and the economy still limping along, any type of immigration legislation is not at the top of many hot-button lists. The problem is that, for many in the electorate, immigration is a true hot-button issue. Immigration may not drive the candidates’ debates, but if Congress does try to take up any immigration legislation, watch the vocal 10% of both sides of the political spectrum rise up. 
 
Any time Congress even approaches active consideration of an immigration bill, I am reminded of a meeting I had with a senior Senate staff member I have known for many years during one such week that an immigration reform bill was to be brought to the Senate floor. I reminded him that my client, a farmer organization, supported the proposed reform. The staff member acknowledged that he knew my client’s position, but that the legislation would not make it to a vote. He conveyed that faxes were coming in at a rate of nearly 100 to 1 against the measure.
 
Now, no poll in the nation would show that voters opposed this bill 99 to 1. I would have expected public opinion to come in somewhere around 50/50. However, there is something about the immigration issue that generates an inflamed response from voters on both sides of the debate.
 
The overall congressional approval rating is running at about 12%. No joke. You can insert your own. 
 
What isn’t funny at all is that while access to a reliable, trained and legal workforce is the most important labor issue facing farmers, there aren’t nearly enough members of Congress willing to lead on this issue because they fear the backlash. In an election year, that fear is multiplied. And while only 12% of the electorate might approve of the current job, our legislators won’t do anything next year to lose what little support they do have.
 
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.

Work to Live and Live to Work

Nov 21, 2011

Human resources on the farm withered as a result of dairies’ recent rocky financial ground. Now that milk prices have improved, consider adding some extra help, readjusting schedules or giving furloughed employees a few more hours.

 
GregCofftaPhoto webBy Greg Coffta, Cornell University
 
Recently, a few area farms have had difficulty managing their employee schedules. These farms are all about the same size, milking 200-500 cows. This seems to be a difficult size to adequately staff while staying within in the means of the payroll budget.
 
As a consequence of the rocky financial ground on which the dairy industry harrowed last year, human resources on the farms withered. Generally, one of two situations has manifested: either employees became overworked and burnt-out or had a steep cutback in hours per week. Often they sought other employment.
 
In either situation, the managers of these farms have had to scramble to cover shifts when employees have abruptly left. Furthermore, because of the previous year’s belt-tightening, dairy farms had cut back to a lean and essential team of employees. Losing any one member of the team forces others to pull extra weight and really takes a toll on morale. Moreover, because staffing had already been economized, losing any one member of the team is a loss of a skilled and critical employee. These farms were forced to make difficult choices and had losses in productivity, considering their situations may help us how to avoid future problems.
 
One farm manager said, “Well, I thought they wanted 80 hours per week.” A strong percentage of Spanish-speaking employees do, in fact, wish to maximize the number of hours that they can work and they may even tell you so. Some employees may not request more hours, but they won’t refuse them if asked to work by the patrón.
 
In either case, working so many hours per week is generally not a good idea on dairies of this or any size. First, employees are more likely to feel tired, and are more prone to accidents on the job or to taking detrimental shortcuts when doing the work. Second, there are always random, extra tasks that pop up on the farm and that need to be completed. If an employee is working 70-80 hours per week, it will be more difficult for your employees to complete those tasks.
 
Finally, working a lean crew of employees at 100% leaves little room for someone to get sick, injured or take needed personal time. Instead of having three employees work 80 hours per week, have four employees work 60 hours per week. It is still 240 hours of man-hours per week. With this change in scheduling, the farm has more flexibility in scheduling and is likely to keep a healthy, happy crew of employees.
 
On another farm, employees were cut back to 56 hours per week from 65, essentially being furloughed a full shift. As a result, a couple of employees sought other employment. Understanding that most Spanish-speaking employees plan to maximize the amount of money made in the five to seven years that they work here and then return home, it is easy to see why many wish to work hard and work a lot.
 
The pitfalls of too many hours were previously discussed, but what happens if making schedule cuts is necessary and disadvantageous to the employee?
 
First of all, be upfront with the employees, and explain to them why their hours are being reduced. Second, make sure that if their hours have been reduced they have a quality of life that will make it worth it to stay. For example, provide for entertainment/recreational opportunities or improve housing/living conditions. Third, take a walk around the farm. As manager, make a list of random tasks that need to be completed around the farm. Use that list as a sign-up sheet for employees who would like to earn some extra hours here and there. (As an aside, it is probably not the best idea to delegate those tasks to chosen employees but rather let them elect the tasks themselves.)
 
Lastly, it is important to recognize that you may inevitably lose an employee whose hours have been cut. At that point, it is crucial that new employees are made aware of the hours, the pay and the job duties as well as the perks of the job upfront, before the hire.
 
Now that milk prices have improved, dairy managers should consider the transition from the lean, essential team of employees to adding some extra help and readjusting schedules, or giving the furloughed employees a few more hours. While this most likely will have some cost to the payroll budget, dairy managers should think of it as a type of insurance for safety, health and happiness for the employees and the manager.
 
In his role as bilingual dairy support specialist for Cornell University’s Northwest New York Dairy, Livestock and Field Crops team, Greg Coffta provides training, translations and meeting facilitation as well as management consulting in English to New York dairy farms. He obtained his bachelor’s degree from SUNY College in Brockport with a double major in Spanish and communications. He earned a master’s degree in education from the University at Buffalo. Contact Coffta at gjc53@cornell.edu.

Shape Shifters

Nov 14, 2011

Empower your folks to do their best. It will only make your dairy better. Do all you can to empower them. You won’t regret it.

 
Duvall, Shaun pro photo 1 11   CopyBy Shaun Duvall, Puentes/ Bridges
 
Last time, I wrote about the way we perceive employees -- either as our greatest asset or a necessary evil. How we view our employees is crucial to our satisfaction in our job, and also to our employees’ satisfaction. I said that I’d provide examples in this article.
               
By the way, it has been a great pleasure to put my thoughts out to you. Thanks for reading them. If and when you have questions or thoughts, I’d be happy to have you e-mail me.
               
Why the title “Shape Shifters”? Because I think that we need to shift our perspective, our “shape” in how we see employees. Not just in dairy (actually, my experience in dairy is that many of us already see employees as our greatest asset).
               
What are examples of employment when we see employees as a necessary evil? First, you set up a system of confrontation. Virtually every interaction is a confrontation: you against them. Salary, working conditions, policies, procedures. Some compliant employees will be that way only because they think they can move ahead in your organization. Others will buck you at every step.
 
Ask yourself: What is the level of trust and commitment on my farm? Does this lead me to micromanage? How does that help me have less work? And most importantly, how do I like this? Does it make me smile each night when I get in the house and finally put my feet up for a few minutes? If it does, then great. If it doesn’t, then read on.
               
Shift to the other paradigm, that of seeing employees as an asset equivalent to your cows, milking equipment or favorite tractor. If you think of it that way, how different do they seem to you? All of a sudden, they are something you have to care for. Caring for people involves more than just maintenance. It involves developing trust, mutual respect and commitment. (Remember, without them, your dairy wouldn’t run).
               
Let me share some examples of how to foster a climate of mutual respect, trust and commitment.
 
First, recognize that this is a two-way street. You go the extra mile to help your employees in whatever ways you can to make their lives better. They go the extra mile to help you have a better dairy. When you need to direct, enforce or “discipline,” remove your judgment. Simply comment on what happened, say that isn’t the way we do it here, and state once again how to do it. Continue to train several times. If it comes to a point where you can’t continue, tell the employee, “You need to do the work this way. If you don’t, you’ll need to find work in another place.” You’re NOT firing the employee, He or she is making the choice. Concentrate on what is going well. ALWAYS tell them what they are doing well.
               
Why not try to offer classes in English, entrepreneurship, personal finance, whatever may be of interest to the employees? Ask what they might like to learn about, then find a local person to offer it. You may need an interpreter, but they are not hard to find.
 
Empower your employees. Don’t assume that they can only do one thing. Gregorio has worked on John’s farm for several years. He now is building and designing the greenhouse. He does so much more than milking. Pedro on another farm has become the supervisor/trainer of all the new employees. Marty depends on him for so much. He comes through, because Marty has done more than the minimum to help his employees out.
               
Empower your folks to do their best. It will only make your dairy better. Do all you can to empower them. You won’t regret it.
               
Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you. I hope to be in touch with many of you in the near future.
 
Saludos,
Shaun
 
Puentes/Bridges is a nonprofit organization that, under Shaun Duvall’s direction, promotes cultural understanding, particularly in the dairy industry. Duvall also operates SJD Language & Culture Services, LLC, a translation and interpretation business. For more information, contact Shaun Duvall at shaunjd@tds.net or (608) 685-4705.

Are You Making Accountability Work for You?

Nov 07, 2011

Dairies are taking greater control of employee performance and succeeding at creating a culture of high performance that benefits both the business and the employees.

 
Anthony Raimondo 2010 06 photoBy Anthony P. Raimondo
 
Traditionally, dairies have operated using a labor model that places very little accountability on workers for quality of work, efficiency and productivity. Most dairies have never used any sort of performance standard to measure the success or failure of milkers, maternity workers, feeders and other employees. 
 
In today’s difficult dairy economy, where slim profit margins and volatility are the norm, dairies cannot afford to ignore how accountability can lead to better performance of the business, and a better bottom line for the dairy producer.
 
There are a number of tools available to dairies that most are not using to evaluate the performance of the workforce. By using these tools, and putting standards in writing in an employee handbook, dairy producers can create a culture of high-performing employees and a better performing business. 
 
Many dairies are using video cameras to monitor the dairy. A range of computer software applications can be used to monitor the milk barn and the handling of commodities in feed mixes. Milk quality test results are an important resource that is often forgotten. Veterinary data, such as calf serum results, are an important measure of the quality of care that calves receive. These tools can be used to improve performance in a number of key areas that affect the bottom line.
 
Safety: Enforcement of safety rules through discipline can positively impact the dairy’s bottom line by eliminating costs related to workers’ compensation claims. Reducing the number of claims will help reduce workers’ compensation insurance costs and reduce lost time to accidents. Monitoring workers on video for safety violations, as well as documented investigations of accidents and injuries, will help the dairy create a culture of safety that will protect employees from harm and improve profitability.
 
Milk Quality: All dairy producers understand the importance of high-quality milk, but most do not hold milkers accountable for milk quality until there is a catastrophic failure. Labor is a critical component of milk quality. Coliform problems are almost always labor problems. LPC problems are typically labor problems once equipment and water temperature are ruled out. SPC and SCC problems can arise when milkers fail to separate ill cows for treatment.  
 
Quality is an area where dairy producers can use both a “carrot” and a “stick” to improve quality, which will improve the dairy’s bottom line through creamery quality bonus programs. Monitoring milk barn video and imposing discipline for failure to follow milking and sanitation procedures are usually the primary approaches, but other approaches can be effective as well.
 
For example, some dairies are implementing incentive pay systems that allow milkers to make more money when quality tests show that they are producing high-quality milk that brings a bonus to the dairy. Dairy policies should explicitly state that when there is a test result that falls below acceptable standards, all milkers who milked into the problem tank will face discipline and, if the problem continues, termination. This type of collective responsibility will drive milkers to police each other in the barn, and to push their co-workers to follow sanitation and milking procedures. 
 
Efficiency and Productivity: Dairy producers now have technological tools to measure the efficiency and productivity of the milk barn. There should be published standards in place that create accountability for how fast the cows move through the barn during each shift. These standards should be realistic but achievable, and milkers should face discipline when they milk too slowly. Better efficiency leads to a better functioning dairy, and to a reduction in overtime and hourly wage costs.
 
Commodities: With the high prices and volatility that have become commonplace in the commodities markets, controlling waste in feed mixing is critical. Software programs can monitor feed ingredient loads to record how much of a particular ingredient was called for in a feed mix, and whether the employee who loaded the ingredient loaded too much or too little, and how far off of the target the load was. It is critical for dairies to set a limit on overage or underage of feed component loads. The feed mixes are designed by herd nutritionists to maximize herd production and health, and variations from the mix can negatively impact the herd. In addition, frequent overages result in the waste of expensive commodities, and must be controlled in order to address feed costs. The tolerance standards should be in writing and should be enforced through discipline.
 
Calf Health: Calf serum reports are a good measure of the performance of maternity workers, as are mortality rates for calves. Calf serum standards and mortality rate standards should be established in writing and should be enforced through discipline.
 
If the dairy is creative, objective performance standards can be used in a wide range of areas to improve employee performance. These standards can be used not only for disciplinary purposes to weed out poor performers, but to reward employees who perform well and consistently meet the standards. 
 
Employees in all industries respond best to clearly stated expectations, and perform best when they are rewarded for success and held accountable for failure. More and more dairies are starting to take greater control of employee performance, and are having success at creating a culture of high performance that benefits both the business and the employees.
 
The goal of this article is to provide employers with current labor and employment law information. 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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