Labor Series: Pt 9 ~ Navigating Labor Contractors ~ Tips from AgSafe’s Amy Wolfe


Written by guest blogger, Amy Wolfe, President and CEO of AgSafe. AgSafe works to provide employers and employees in the agricultural industry with the education and resources needed to prevent injuries, illnesses, and fatalities. 

In today’s agricultural industry, contract labor is playing an increasingly important role in getting our vast array of commodities to consumers. Whether it’s a result of labor shortages or growers’ desire to minimize the risks inherent in being an employer, the number of licensed farm labor contractors (FLCs) is on the rise to help fill that need. It is imperative that farmers understand the legal parameters for FLCs and how to ensure they are working with a business legally in compliance.

Read on as I discuss the basics of farm labor contractors, how to find those that are legally registered, and what additional paperwork a farmer should request before working with one.

Farm Labor Contractors 101

First, it’s helpful to have a basic understanding of farm labor contractors (FLCs). The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA) applies to any person (or business) who recruits, solicits, hires, employs, furnishes, or transports migrant or seasonal agricultural workers (the MSPA refers to these activities as “farm labor contracting activities”).

Amy Wolfe, AgSafe

Amy Wolfe, AgSafe

Federal regulations require a farm labor contractor to register with the DOL providing information on the core elements of their business, including proof of workers’ compensation insurance, fingerprint cards, and registering employees given supervisory responsibilities. In addition, if the FLC transports workers, they must give details regarding those individuals responsible for transporting workers, proof of auto insurance and vehicle inspection reports. At the same time, if the FLC provides housing, they need to submit a housing occupancy certificate, along with any applicable local government documentation.

Concurrently, in California, farm labor contractors must become licensed through the Department of Industrial Relations, Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE). This is an annual process and includes providing details on the ownership of the business, proof of possessing a payroll bond, submitting evidence of workers’ compensation insurance, and participating in 8-hours of continuing education. The entire license process has many more elements and is outlined in California Labor Code Section 1684.

The role of the FLC has recently drawn tremendous scrutiny and attention from California legislators. At the moment, the DLSE is in the process of changing a number of the elements in Section 1684, both procedural and adding entirely new requirements to receive and maintain a license. In addition, Senator Bill Monning (D- Carmel) has sponsored legislation (SB 1087) to address other issues he believes are lacking in the FLC community. Both sets of changes will make the state licensing process much more rigorous and shine an even brighter light on these businesses.

The Implications for Farmers

farm-workers_6394_600x450Given the litany of regulatory requirements in place for a farm labor contractor to conduct business, it is incumbent upon farmers to ensure the FLC they hire is in good standing with both the DOL, DLSE and other government agencies governing workers. The DLSE has created a searchable database that indicates if a FLC’s license is current.

While California provides this service, the DOL does not so it is important for farmers to request proof registration with the federal government. In addition, it is prudent to request evidence of the following:

  • Registration with the IRS
  • Clear standing with the IRS
  • Registration with the state Employment Development Department (EDD)
  • Registration with the state Franchise Tax Board
  • Registration with the county agriculture commissioner (California)
  • Current workers’ compensation insurance coverage
  • Current Injury and Illness Prevention Program (California) or state applicable safety program
  • Safety training documentation
  • Safety inspection documentation
  • Emergency Action Plans
  • First Aid/CPR training
  • Worker Protection Standard training
  • For employees applying chemicals, handler training certification (if applicable)
  • For employees driving equipment, safety training certificates

While it may seem tedious to request all this information, it is in the farmer’s best interest. Since one of the reasons for using a farm labor contractor is to minimize employer risk, the farmer needs to ensure that the FLC is complying with all applicable state and federal employer-related laws. Failure to do so can result in both the farmer and the FLC being held liable if a law is broken or worse, if a worker is injured on the job.

Now What? Five Action Steps for Moving Forward with a FLC

1. Clearly outline what you need from an FLC – the type of work to be done, how long that work is expected to take, the number of workers needed, and if those workers need to possess specific skills (pruning, planting, harvesting, equipment operation, chemical application, etc.). It is critical that you have a very clear picture in your mind of what you need prior to engaging a FLC.

2.  Evaluate what you will take responsibility for, what you expect the FLC to manage, and how you can minimize your joint employer risk. Consider things like who will be responsible for providing equipment, who will train employees in how to safely perform their jobs and who is responsible for maintaining records of the workers’ daily activities, to name a few.

3.  Talk to your peers. Find out if they are working with a FLC and if so, who. While we work in a competitive environment, it is important to vet contractors with your counterparts and ask, in particular, questions about their performance specific to your commodity.

4.  Check with the agencies. All too often a grower will take “coffee shop talk” as gospel and not investigate a contractor any further. California makes it relatively simple to double-check the licensing status of farm labor contractors. As a result, there’s no good reason to not know if your FLC is in good standing with the Labor Commissioner’s office.

5. Expect to be in regular communication with your FLC. Despite popular misconception, bringing in a contractor doesn’t mean you sign the contract then walk away. The best grower-contractor relationships are grounded in constant communication. Failure to discuss progress of the crews and the issues that naturally arise only exacerbates those problems down the line. Remember – joint employer liability is best managed when you know what your FLC is doing.

Ultimately, using contract labor is a decision that farmers need to take seriously. The decision at first glance may appear to solve short-term demands but the implications are farther reaching. By knowing the requirements placed upon a farm labor contractor to do business, a farmer will be able to screen businesses accordingly and in the end, work with someone that does in fact, help solve labor problems instead of creating more.

Thank you Amy for this insightful article! If you’d like more information on farm labor contractors, and farm worker safety, visit AgSafe.

For more practical labor-related resources, see our new Labor & Worker Safety Toolkit!  

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 contractors, 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!

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