Labor Series: Pt 8 ~ Best Practices in Farm Labor Management

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Lunchtime at Gathering Together Farm in Philomath, Oregon

Our Labor & Worker Safety series continues today with tips to improve labor management on the farm. This feature is an abbreviated version of a 2006 study conducted by the California Institute for Rural Studies, written by Ron Strochlic and Kari Hamerschlag.

During the study, twelve farm owners and more than eighty farmworkers in California were interviewed to gain insight into the best labor management practices and the benefits that farmworkers value most.

Read on as we discuss the most outstanding practices identified in the study. It should come as no surprise that farmworkers value what most of us have come to expect or desire from our own places of work: a living wage, respectful treatment, safe conditions, health insurance, benefits, and the ability to advocate for improved conditions without fear of retribution.

We hope the following examples inspire you to think about your farm’s labor management practices and make improvements if needed!


1. Respectful Treatment

This includes a broad range of issues, including a humane pace of work, respectful communication styles, direct grower-worker communications, a healthy work environment, and decision-making structures that recognize the contribution and value of each worker. The farmworkers in the study consistently ranked respectful treatment on par with or higher than wages in terms of importance.

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Farmworker receives back pay.

2. Compensation

Fair compensation rates a close second to respectful treatment in terms of what is most important to farmworkers. Given the precarious economics of farming, compensation is a complex issue. However, when all forms of compensation and benefits are taken into account – including profit- sharing, bonuses, health insurance, retirement plans, paid time off, housing support, and access to food from the farm – the total value of compensation increases significantly, and more closely approximates a living wage.

Examples:

  • Living Wage: a diversified Central Coast farm pays an average hourly wage of $9-11.25 to field workers, and between $35,000 and $45,000 per year to managers. A vineyard in Napa uses three pay levels for all workers, based on skill and responsibility: Tier A : $13.25; Tier B: $11.75 and Tier C: $11/hour.
  • Regular Pay Increases: three farms offer automatic cost of living increases of 5% to 10% each year.
  • Profit-Sharing: a mid-sized diversified farm provides seasonal and permanent employees with approximately $40,000 in profit-sharing each year, the equivalent of 25 to 50 cents per hour. Profits are distributed twice per year – during the harvest and at the end of the year – as a means of thanking and incentivizing employees.
  • Overtime Pay: one large corporate farm offers overtime after 8, not 10, hours per day, and 48, – not 60, hours per week.
  • Bonuses: one corporate farm on the Central Coast provides a bonus of 22 cents per hour worked to everyone remaining through the harvest, amounting to roughly $400 per year.

3. Year-Round Work

Next, farmworkers identified year-round employment as one of the conditions they most value. In addition to a steady income and job security, year-round work enables farmworkers to maintain a stable family life, with benefits for their children and communities.

A permanent workforce is also good for business. With increasing labor shortages, the farmers with year-round employees have access to a steady supply of labor. High retention rates keep recruitment and training costs low, while year-round production increases farm revenue. Delivering high quality products year-round also enables farmers to retain market share among wholesalers who prefer dealing with year-round suppliers.

blog pic 34. Traditional Benefits

The majority of the farms in the study offer a broad range of traditional benefits, including health insurance, retirement plans, paid time off, and free or subsidized housing.

Examples:

  • Health Insurance: a vineyard management company covers 100% of medical, dental, vision and life insurance benefits for workers and families after an employee has worked 120 hours. A mid-sized Central Coast farm provides health and dental insurance coverage for all employees and family members after 6 months.
  • Holiday Pay: two corporate farms offer 6 paid holidays to seasonal and year-round employees, and two smaller diversified farms offer 5 paid holidays.
  • Vacation Pay: one Central Coast farm offers paid vacation to all employees working until the end of the season: 5 days during year 1, 2 weeks after 3 years, and 18 days after 6 years. A mid-sized Central Valley farm offers one week vacation pay – or 50 hours paid out –after 2 years, which increases to 2 weeks – or 100 hours paid out – after 3 years.
  • Retirement Plans: a vineyard provides a 100% match for permanent employee contributions up to 5% of their wages. A corporate farm contributes 3% of wages for all permanent and seasonal workers, whether or not they contribute. It matches an additional 2% for employees that contribute.
  • Bereavement Pay: two corporate farms offer 3 days paid bereavement leave.
  • Life Insurance: one corporate farm offers life insurance; it recently doubled the amount of the benefit to cover transporting bodies back to Mexico.

5. Non-Traditional Benefits

All of the farms in the study offer a broad range of less traditional benefits. Of these, the most highly valued by employees are personal loans and access to food from the farm.

Examples:

  • Personal Loans: four farms offer no-interest loans of $500 to $2,000, which are paid back through payroll deductions. Two other farms offer loans through retirement plans.
  • Business Loans: a farm in the Capay Valley helped several of its farmworkers purchase a neighboring farm, which is now a successful CSA.
  • Food from the Farm: eight farms encourage workers to take home food grown on the farm on a regular basis.
  • Assistance with Social Services: a mid-sized Capay Valley farm helped employees start an Alcoholics Anonymous group, and paid for alcohol rehabilitation treatment for an employee. A corporate farm helped build and support a childcare center for its workers’ children.

blog pic 26. Labor Relations, Communication and Decision Making

There are a range of practices that foster good communications between employers and employees. Some of these, such as safety meetings, employee orientations and employee handbooks are focused on communicating information and expectations, while others, such as regular meetings and grievance procedures, create space for worker representation and participation in decision-making processes.

Examples:

  • Formalized Policies and Employee Manuals: three farms have formalized policies, which are codified in bilingual English-Spanish employee handbooks.
  • Grievance Procedures: a corporate farm’s policy is for employees to first raise concerns with direct supervisors. If concerns are not adequately resolved they may go to their manager’s supervisor, and from there to the head of Human Resources, or directly to the farm’s president.
  • Worker Input: a mid-sized farm holds weekly meetings, where staff can provide input regarding production issues and voice concerns about pay, personnel conflicts, etc.
  • Information Sharing: a vineyard holds an annual meeting for its business partners, investors and employees. All permanent and seasonal employees are paid to attend the meeting, where a Spanish interpreter is provided.

7. Caution When Using Farm Labor Contractors

Approximately 50% of California farms utilize the services of farm labor contractors (FLCS), who are notorious for low wages, poor treatment of workers, and fast, yet often poor quality work. In order to ensure good worker treatment and higher quality production, the farms in the study prefer to hire directly. Nonetheless, fully half of those farms contract with FLCS when they require a large crew for a short period of time. In most of these cases, however, farmers take precautions to prevent abuses and ensure higher pay for workers.

05_glebocki_farms8. Health and Safety Issues

Improved health and safety are additional benefits offered by many of the farms in the study.

Examples:

  • Handweeding Limitations: two farms explicitly limit hand weeding to two hours a day.
  • Safety Incentives: three farms have incorporated explicit safety incentives into their annual bonus programs. A corporate farm conducts quarterly raffles for workers with a perfect safety record and an annual raffle for workers who have remained accident free during the entire year.  Prizes are offered: grand prize of $14,000 toward the purchase of a vehicle, $8,000 towards a mortgage or home remodeling, and numerous other high value prizes.
  • Safety Conditions: a stone fruit farm in the Central Valley lowered the height of trees to reduce falls from ladders. Another farm has monthly safety meetings. Virtually all farms encourage workers to share heavy loads.

9. Management Structures

One of the defining characteristics of the farms in the study is a significantly more democratic, team-based approach to management and supervision than the hierarchical management structures found on many farms. Virtually all of the growers in the study work alongside farmworkers to some degree, and have direct communication with them on a daily basis. All speak some Spanish as well, which facilitates direct communication.

Additionally, direct contact also allows farmers to get to know their workers personally, and to identify particularly motivated employees or those with special skills. Personal relationships with growers also increase farmworkers’ sense of investment in and commitment to the farm.

farmworker5_08051010. Diversity of Tasks

Most of the farms in the study produce ten or more crops, with over a third growing at least 50 different crops. This diversity leads to a greater variety of tasks for workers, who appreciate the ability to switch tasks several times a day. In addition to relieving the monotony and tedium that are often associated with production agriculture, this helps reduce health problems associated with stoop labor and repetitive stress. The diversity of tasks also creates opportunities for on-going learning, which contributes to job satisfaction.

11. Opportunities for Professional Development and Advancement

Most of the growers in the study have proactively provided workers with opportunities for skills acquisition and advancement in their jobs by promoting those with leadership or other skills to managerial or technical positions. While this strategy seems to work well in terms of promoting farmworkers to new skill categories, such as irrigation or driving a tractor, it has met with less success in terms of promotions to supervisory positions, given high levels of reluctance among farmworkers to supervise friends or family members.


For more practical labor-related resources, like a full PDF version of the study above, see our Labor & Worker Safety Toolkit (more resources coming soon!).  

If you happened to miss them, check out our other articles in the Labor & Worker Safety series:

If you’ve had to deal with labor management, and labor or worker safety issues let us know! We’d love to hear your stories for upcoming articles. If you have a question or comment to share, visit FarmsReach Conversations.

If you have other great resources to share, get in touch!

5 Thoughts on “Labor Series: Pt 8 ~ Best Practices in Farm Labor Management

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this study!

    Even if you don’t have employees now, hopefully (if that’s what you aspire to) you will as your farm matures. It’s great to keep these suggestions in mind as you build your business.

    We have a wide variety of studies and reports all available for free for you to read or download, on rural issues and concerns. Feel free to browse!!

    http://www.cirsinc.org

  2. Thanks, Sarah! This was a very insightful study and it was perfect to share. We’re looking forward to highlighting more of your resources in the future!

  3. Great – and I keep forgetting to log in, but I am a member of this great site 🙂

  4. Paul Underhill on June 13, 2014 at 6:28 am said:

    This is great information. However, I would caution against blanket statements about Farm Labor Contractors. FLCs have been demonized by labor groups but the truth is that they provide a critical service to farmers and all of agriculture. Most farms have labor needs during their peak season that their permanent employees cannot handle. FLCs balance these needs. They are very tightly regulated by the state, and while there are a few bad actors, they are usually shut down.

    Year round employment for all your employees is a nice goal, but very few of us can actually achieve and still earn a profit. Judicious use of FLCs is actually a benefit to your other employees because it allows you to keep your overall annual labor costs down and thus more generously compensate your permanent workers. Please consider revising the section on FLCs to recognize this!

  5. Hey Paul,
    Thanks for your comment, and I agree. We should have an interesting blog coming up at the end of the month from Ag Safe, discussing the benefits of FLC’s and how to legally work with them. We know farmers rely a lot on FLCs, and therefore want to provide some basic information on how to work with them and use them to your advantage. Stay tuned and thanks for reading!

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