How to Avoid a Farmworker-Related Scandal

How to Avoid a Farmworker-Related Scandal

Worker-related-scandal-July-2018During 2011, an out-of-control crew leader and labor contractor in Florida put the farm he was working with in legal jeopardy and the crew working for him through hell. He was allegedly pocketing a portion of the workers’ wages, refusing to pay overtime, and docking their pay further for food and water. When even undocumented workers pushed back, he brandished a gun, threatening their lives.

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While the farm was able to negotiate a settlement where it did not accept liability, it did pay back wages and an undisclosed amount to the workers. The corrupt crew chief was sued separately and ordered to pay $3.5 million to the workers, which he never paid, according to The Atlantic.

This Florida farm is not alone. Unsafe or abusive workplace practices have been the grounds for several lawsuits filed by farm workers earlier this year and in the recent past.

In order to minimize your own risks and ensure employees are treated fairly, every farming operation should create and enforce policies that help its crew leaders and farm managers understand and enforce a healthy and safe workplace.

It Starts with Your Farm’s Culture

Jason Resnick, Vice President and General Counsel for Western Growers, says having a company culture that makes you an employer of choice is a must, though not necessarily enough. A farming operation must put in place whatever measures necessary to ensure your policies are enforced at all levels of the company.

“It starts at the top and has to be seen all the way through to the field foreman and the supervisors who are on the ground with the production workers,” he says.

The best way to guarantee company policies are understood and applied at field level is to provide comprehensive training programs for farm supervisors — employees and contractors alike.

Although farm contractors are required to operate with a federal license, and a state license in some cases, the requirements to obtain such licenses vary widely — from strict annual renewals in California, to low-threshold requirements in Florida, and none in other states.

Dr. Fritz Roka, head of the Farm Labor Supervisor Training Program at the University of Florida, believes enforcing training and licensing for farm supervisors should be employer driven.

Those who voluntarily follow specific training programs are usually the ones who are already doing or want to do a good job, Dr. Roka says. The issue is with those who don’t see an advantage hiring trained supervisors or training their own employees.

The latter group, although small, gives the whole industry a bad reputation when labor problems arise.

Worth Knowing About: Farm Labor Supervisor (FLS) Training Program

The University of Florida developed the FLS training program in 2010. It has evolved through its current format of individual modules or training sessions covering topics like equipment safety and preventing pesticide exposure, vehicle and driver safety regulations, wage and hour regulations, and anti-discrimination and harassment laws.

The program is currently offered in English and Spanish and includes a separate session that discusses the H-2A petition and recruitment process as well as how to manage migrant workers.

One of the strongest points of this program is its interactive nature, in which case studies are posted to and solved by the participants, particularly in safe driving, first aid, and discrimination and sexual harassment. The program may also be customized to individual companies by request.

A long-term goal of the FLS training program is to offer train-the-trainer modules that participants can take back to their respective operations.

The Rise of Farm Labor Contractors

Over the past 10 years, growers have turned to farm labor contractors (FLCs) to help find needed workers. In some states, like California, the number of workers brought in via FLCs outnumbers the workers hired directly by operations. In fact, FLCs brought in five out of every nine crop workers.

Here are a few stats to consider:

Tough Issues in a Farm Working Environment

Resnick and Roka identify some key areas you can focus on to insulate yourself from bad actors and to ensure your policies are in place with all workers:

1. Defined Responsibilities. Whenever you hire a farm contractor, you are responsible for actions taken on your behalf. From a farm supervisor’s point of view, the idea of compensable time is still the hardest point to grasp, Dr. Roka says. He also stresses the need for accurate record keeping documentation.

2. Communication. The second issue is the psychological perception in the communication process. Roka says there are more important aspects than meeting the production quota.

“How you communicate with your workers and encourage them has a big impact in their productivity.”

Resnick goes further, saying there will always be issues, so you must train your supervisors and foremen — the ones who are actually on the ground with the production workers — to be alert and observant.

“[Farming operations] must have an open-door policy to ensure that employees feel they have a voice and they can express those issues when they happen,” he says.

You may not agree with what your workers tell you, but at least they will be given a fair opportunity to respond, Resnick says.

“Growers must have procedures in place for employees to file complaints or express issues and concerns or grievances. And they would investigate and respond in an appropriate and timely manner before they escalate,” he says.

Resnick adds that if you don’t have people who are willing and able to listen and resolve issues, then employees have no choice but to go outside to the union, the Labor Commissioner, another agency, or a plaintiff’s attorney.

3. Training. Lastly, both experts agree on the value and importance of the training process.

Roka suspects growers don’t understand the value they get from the University of Florida’s certificate. Growers who hire those who go through and pass the learning program have a much more productive workforce and gain a competitive labor-recruitment advantage. He believes the certificate should be mandatory to apply for a farm supervisor job.

“There is no way of categorizing or recognizing that professional, so that’s an objective of our program and one of the hardest points to get across,” he says.

Resnick, on the other hand, advises Western Growers members to train their staff to be an employer of choice.

Tap into Common Knowledge

When it comes to learning best industry practices, it’s always a good idea to join growers’ associations to be able to tap into common resources available for members.

“You can learn from the training that’s offered by those organizations and learn from your peers,” Resnick says.

Plus, these associations usually offer conferences, seminars, and free materials to help ensure their members comply with the law.

Aside from the programs offered by growers’ associations and educational institutions, growers may use other resources available at the federal or state level through the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

There is a perception among the non-farm community and farm labor advocates that growers are corrupt and abuse their crews. For growers to break the mold and improve current working conditions within the farming system, they must value and implement relevant training programs as well as strengthen the internal lines of communication.