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April 2012 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.

What Is Important to Your Employees?

Apr 30, 2012

It may be quite different than you think.

ChuckSchwartau photoBy Chuck Schwartau, University of Minnesota Extension
How well do you know your employees? Do you know what is important to them? Do you know what they value and like about their work?
While most employers would like to think they can answer those questions in an affirmative manner, they might be surprised if they surveyed the employees. How you view the importance of issues related to the work may be significantly different from how the employees view those same factors. 
Vicki Niebrugge, NOVA Group, conducted a survey of employees and employers to see how well the two groups were agreed on factors that affect employee morale.  

Employers’ Ranking
Employees’ Ranking
Good wages
Job security
Good working conditions
Interesting work
Personal loyalty
Tactful discipline
Appreciation and recognition
Sympathetic help with problems
Feeling “in on things

Niebrugge, Vicki, Declining Employee Morale: Defining the Causes and Finding the Cure, NOVA Group
Especially noteworthy is the item of “Wages.” It is pretty natural that employers would expect wages to be the No. 1 issue with employees. Surprise – it was No. 5 on the employees’ list. Look at what ranked higher with employees: interesting work, appreciation and recognition, a feeling of knowing what is happening in the business and job security were more important. Take note, also, of the fact the top four employee issues aren’t economic. 
Employees like to know how their jobs fit into the business as a whole and that their job contributes to the success of the business. Those two items are feeling “in on things” and can be related to “interesting work” and “recognition” for value of their work. How often have you taken time to really explain to your employees how their work affects the work of others on the farm and affects the financial bottom line on your farm? Without good, productive employees, your financial picture would probably look a lot different.
The items in the table above may not be as closely related to your farm employees as you would like, so why not take time at an upcoming employee meeting to conduct a short survey of your own. The following survey might stir productive discussion and help you determine what is important to your employees and worth consideration to increase employee satisfaction. If you identify other relevant questions, feel free to add them.

Score 1-5
5=very important
3 = average importance
1 = not important
How well is this being met today? Score 1 - 5
5 = very well
3 = being met somewhat
1 = not being met at all
Flexibility of scheduling
Time off in blocks for holidays
The opportunity to plan your own workload
Working with others
Good housing (provided or available for rent)
Feeling like they ‘belong’ in the community
Personal development
Education, training, and other professional development
Stable employment
Other items (please list)

Having employees give you feedback on a questionnaire like this can help you look at ways to make your farm a place they and others will want to work in the future. Do not put a place on the form for their names, and specifically tell them you do not want to know who is making the comments. That should increase the comfort level with the survey. At the same time, though, let them know if they do want to talk with you personally, you are available to them.
If you are dealing with a workforce that speaks little or no English, this is simple enough to get translated in another language. If the workforce happens to have limited reading skills, what you can learn would be worth paying to have someone translate and work with the employees for oral responses to be recorded. 
Finally, when you learn what is important to your employees, work toward positive changes where possible. For items that are impossible to change, or at least difficult in the short term, explain to your employees that you understand their concerns but they may or may not be changeable on your farm, and explain why. That offers recognition for their input and understanding of the difficulties the farm may have implementing some of their ideas and concerns. 
Some time spent on these issues can lead to greater employee satisfaction and lower employee turnover. Those two items can make life on the farm easier and usually more profitable.
Finally, remember, many of these factors of satisfaction are not financial, but they revolve around personal relationships. Managing employees on a farm is extremely difficult without regularly interacting with those same employees. Take time to know them and recognize them for their contributions. It should pay in the end.
Chuck Schwartau has been with the University of Minnesota Extension Service for 31 years. As part of the Extension Dairy Team, he focuses on workforce development and management, dairy business organization and risk management. Contact him at cschwart@umn.edu or (507) 536-6301.

Dairy Farmer: Worst Job in America?

Apr 23, 2012

Given this attitude regarding farming, it should not be surprising that our children are told to study computer science instead of agriculture. It also gives tremendous insight into the rural labor crisis and immigration.

Erich Straub   CopyBy Erich Straub, attorney

So what do you want to be when you grow up? This is an age-old question for children, and according CareerCast, a child would be wise to choose Software Engineer. CareerCast is an Internet-based job search company, and each year they rank 200 jobs according to categories such as income, work environment, stress, physical demands and hiring outlook.

The top-10 vocations are crowned the “Best Jobs in America.” This year Software Engineer beat competitors such as Actuary, Human Resources Manager, Dental Hygienist and Financial Planner for the top spot.

Of course, CareerCast also ranks the “Worst Jobs in America,” and coming in at 199 out of 200 is Dairy Farmer. At the risk of rubbing salt in the wound, the following jobs ranked well above Dairy Farmer in the survey: Tax Collector (107); Sewage Plant Operator (114); Corrections Officer (129); Janitor (151); and Garbage Collector (160).

So how is it that the person who takes away the trash has a more valued job in our society than the person who puts milk and cheese on the table? One answer may be the radical change in our nation’s attitudes about agriculture over the past century. Most Americans now are born, live and die with no real connection to a farm. For most, food simply comes from a grocery store.

Given this attitude regarding farming, it should not be surprising that our children are told to go to college to study computer science instead of agriculture. It also gives tremendous insight into the present rural labor crisis and immigration. As farmers in Georgia and Alabama have discovered, restricting agricultural immigrant labor did not result in a flood of citizen applicants for farm work, even in an economy with high unemployment. The reason is simple: we have been teaching our children for decades that agricultural work is a vocation to be avoided. This is a cultural shift that is well rooted and will not be instantly reversed by laws that tout “self-deportation” as the answer.

Attitudes can change over time, and CareerCast’s survey may hold out some hope. Coming in at 198 in the survey is Enlisted Military Soldier. It seems that for all the flag waving and pious pronouncements of politicians, serving your country by putting your life on the line is not considered a good career move either. At least Dairy Farmers are in good and noble company.

When faced with sobering news about the vocation pecking order, it is tempting to look at those beneath you. In this case, the lonely Lumberjack comes in at 200. Interestingly enough, another immigration attorney at my law firm had a recent meeting with a famous Lumberjack who also happens to be a Congressman from my state. A Dairy Farmer was also at the meeting, and the purpose was to impress upon the Congressman how critical immigration reform is to the economic health of the dairy industry, which is connected to one in every 10 jobs in my state. The response from the Congressman was straight out of his party’s political talking points: “Well, I would like to help you, but we need to secure the border first.”

How long will it take to “secure the border?” The phrase has eluded consensus on Capitol Hill for years and is now virtually meaningless. How many decades will it take for us to reverse a decades-long trend and convince our children that farm work is a valued and noble profession? Can dairy afford to wait?

I wonder where Congressional Representative would rank on CareerCast’s survey if it were included?

Erich C. Straub is an immigration lawyer who practices in Wisconsin and is listed in The Best Lawyers in America, SuperLawyers, and U.S. News and World Report’s Best Law Firms. Mr. Straub has spoken to audiences throughout the U.S. on immigration, and frequently advises Wisconsin Dairy Farmers on the topic. He has traveled Washington, D.C., to meet with elected officials regarding immigration reform. In 2008, the Milwaukee Business Journal described him as a “national leader on the federal immigration issue.” Contact him at (414) 224-8472 or erich@straubimmigration.com.

As Congress Watches, States Wrestle with Immigration Laws

Apr 16, 2012

Congressional failure to provide national uniformity is leading to several states acting disparately. As that inconsistency becomes more evident, Congress must restore uniform standards on this decidedly national issue.  

Miltner photo   CopyBy Ryan Miltner, attorney
It certainly looks like the chances of Congress acting on immigration in any way that positively impacts agriculture this year are about as good as Ron Paul’s chances of winning the Republican nomination for President. 
In fact, the Congressional staff members that I have spoken with are uniformly in agreement that there is “no way” that immigration reform gets taken up before the November elections.
In the face of this Congressional vacuum, states are acting. The results are not as you might expect.  As I look at the most recent developments in state immigration legislative actions, it appears that states are beginning to learn that extreme immigration laws, regardless of their stated intent, are detrimental to state economies.
What is meant by “extreme immigration laws”? Well, the term is not my own. I’ve borrowed it from www.immigrationimpact.com, a blog advocating for the type of comprehensive immigration reform that so much of the agricultural community longs for. As one example of such an extreme law, the site identifies Alabama’s “Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act.” 
The Beason-Hammon Act, which includes provisions mandating the use of E-Verify, has had several of its provisions blocked by federal courts. The E-Verify provision, however, remains in effect. Meanwhile, the Alabama legislature is conducting hearings on revising provisions of the law. 
In neighboring Mississippi, a measure modeled after Beason-Hammon died in committee. One reason cited was opposition from both Mississippi law enforcement and Mississippi farmers. Law enforcement opposed the proposed bill because of the costs to local law enforcement agencies. Farm groups pointed specifically to the damage inflicted on Alabama farms after the passage of Beason-Hammon, including the inability to get crops harvested.
That theme, a lack of agricultural workers, has repeated itself where harsh immigration laws have been passed. According to the American Immigration Council’s Immigration Policy Center, 56% of Georgia farmers had trouble finding workers after the state passed an immigration enforcement bill. Plantings in Alabama have been cut back because of similar worries. In Kansas, the state Secretary of Agriculture is requesting that the Department of Homeland Security provide waivers to permit farmers to hire what would otherwise be undocumented workers through a state monitored program.
Looking beyond agriculture, the Immigration Policy Center provides information on the broader economic impacts of state laws like Beason-Hammon.  Executives from Japan and Germany were cited for not having sufficient documentation while visiting Honda and Mercedes plants in Alabama. 
Republican legislators are concerned about the impacts incidents like these will have on future investment in the state. In Arizona, an estimated $45 million in tourism dried up after its immigration law was passed. E-Verify requirements could cost small businesses an average of $435 each per year. Additionally, there are costs of implementation, litigation, and enforcement.
As a result, Mississippi joins a growing list of states that are choosing to not follow the lead of Arizona and Alabama. The result will be as some predicted over the past few years. Congressional failure to provide national uniformity is leading to states acting disparately. As that disparity becomes more evident, the next step will be for Congress to step in and restore uniform standards on this decidedly national issue.  
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.

The Myth of Progressive Discipline

Apr 09, 2012

At some businesses, immediate termination follows a specified number of disciplinary warnings. But this often lacks the flexibility that dairy producers need when managing employees. Fortunately, there are better options.

Anthony Raimondo 2010 06 photoBy Anthony P. Raimondo, attorney, McCormick Barstow LLP
Many dairymen are reluctant to document incidents where they have to correct or discipline an employee. This reluctance often arises from a misunderstanding of “progressive discipline” and how to demonstrate cause to support disciplinary action, including termination of employment.
Most employment is “at-will,” meaning either employer or employee can terminate the relationship at any time for any reason. Over time, the “at-will” principle has been modified by laws, limiting the employer’s right to terminate for “any reason.”
For example, whistleblower laws protect employees’ right to raise complaints about unlawful or unsafe conduct in the workplace. Discrimination laws protect employees from being fired for their race, religion, national origin, gender and other prohibited reasons. Prudent employers will be prepared to present a business justification for adverse employment actions in order to protect themselves from claims of wrongful termination or discrimination.
Some businesses have adopted strict forms of “progressive discipline,” a process where a specified number of disciplinary warnings results in immediate termination. When consistently enforced, such systems provide consistency and objectivity, and can protect the business from accusations.
But strict progressive discipline systems lack the flexibility that dairy producers often need when managing employees. A “three strikes and you’re out” policy may force a dairy to terminate an employee who shows promise for the future, or to terminate a good employee who is going through a bad patch. In addition, these policies can lead to operational difficulties if a dairy finds itself short-handed due to lost employees who have been terminated without being replaced.
One of the unusual features of dairy employment is that the best dairy employees are those that the producer can keep on the ranch for years, or even decades. Dairies highly value employees who remain with the business for 10, 20 or 30 years, and long-term employees are far more common in the dairy than in our generally mobile society as a whole.  
When an employee works for a farmer for decades, the business is likely to see the impact that divorce, family tragedies, struggles with children and other personal issues can have on work performance. In dairies, it can be important to ride out the “rough patches” to bring a good employee back to good performance. Rigid progressive discipline systems do not provide the flexibility that is needed in such circumstances.
Fortunately, there are better options. The most effective disciplinary systems take into account all of the circumstances surrounding the incident, including the employee’s history with the company, the severity of the incident, how the employee responded to his or her mistake, and any other factors that can affect the decision process.
For example, a long-term, valued employee has built up a store of “good will” that can offset many serious problems that might lead a brand new employee to be terminated. An employee who is honest and owns up to a mistake might be given leniency that is not given to an employee who is dishonest and tries to cover up a mistake.
The critical element of effective discipline is to maintain the necessary documentation to show why an employee was treated a certain way. When labor disputes end up in litigation, the situation is examined in hindsight, and it is important to have tangible evidence of the disciplinary process. Dairy producers should not be afraid of flexibility in discipline, as long as they have a habit of good documentation that will tell the story.
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, consult with Anthony Raimondo at McCormick Barstow LLP in Fresno, Calif., at (559) 433-1300.
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