Rules of the House: If you provide employee housing, put rules in writing

November 10, 2008 12:13 PM


Protect yourself by having a written agreement with each employee for whom you provide housing.

Anthony Raimondo will admit that being an attorney often makes him a little paranoid.

He gets nervous when he sees children playing near cows, or dogs running loose around heavy equipment. These are among the numerous safety hazards that exist for employees and their families who live on dairies.

Raimondo urges you to help keep employees and their families safe—and protect yourself from liability—by establishing housing rules in writing.

"These rules should be clearly documented in your employee handbook,” says Raimondo, whose law firm, Saqui & Raimondo, is the exclusive group legal provider for Western United Dairymen, the California-based trade association.

Employee handbooks are a great way to let employees know what the expectations are, Raimondo says. "Having written rules helps support employers. It's important to show that you have safety rules that you enforce.”

If you provide employee housing, have a written agreement with each worker who'll live there. "You should view these written rules as a way to protect yourself rather than as a burden on your business,” Raimondo says.

Take control by putting these points in writing:

Specify the number of dogs, other animals and people allowed to occupy the premises. You may want to include a provision that animals be leashed or penned.

Have your employees' housing inspected by a qualified professional to ensure it is up to state and federal standards. Exposed electrical wires, holes in walls and floors, rotted wood, leaky plumbing and raw sewage draining into the yard won't pass inspection. Rodents and insects should be kept in check.

Set standards for keeping the grounds clean. That may include a rule that prohibits nonoperating vehicles from being left on your property. Does the employee take his own trash to the dump, or should a garbage-removal fee be deducted from the employee's check? Write it in your handbook.

Don't let employees bring their children to work.

Make heavy equipment, lagoons, milking parlors, maternity pens, barns and corrals off-limits to workers' families.

In some states, a worker living in employer-provided housing cannot be ejected if he or she is out on disability or has a workers' compensation claim. Check local laws.

Stipulate whether housing is included as part of a worker's wages or, conversely, how much rent must be paid monthly.

In some states, including California, you can get credit toward meeting the minimum wage requirement if you provide housing for an employee. "Again, this needs to be a written agreement between employer and employee,” Raimondo says.

Spell out who's responsible for housing damage. Who pays for repairs if an employee breaks a window or door? Put it in writing ahead of time. "In some states, the housing provider must be responsible for repairs and ordinary wear and tear,” Raimondo says.

More sugggestions:

  • Specify whether, or to what extent, employees may repair, renovate, paint or otherwise change employer-provided housing.
  • Install smoke alarms in employee housing.
  • Keep your eyes and ears open for illegal activity. In California, cock fighting is against the law, so be suspicious if you see or hear caged roosters on your property. "They're often hidden,” Raimondo says.


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