Work to Live and Live to Work

Published on: 10:55AM 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 [email protected].