Meeting agricultural employees' basic daily needs

Tracey Erickson
SDSU Extension Dairy Field Specialist

Within the dairy and livestock industry we spend a majority of our time focused on animal comfort and care. We know this is extremely important, we also know that it is vital to the success of our operations and is highly valued by consumers. But let me ask you this, how much emphasis are we placing on our employees and their comfort and care? Do consumers care? Is it something we should place at a higher level on our management radar?

The answer to the three questions is yes. Within agriculture a majority of the work is based around hiring blue collar labor employees. Our competition is other employers who are also hiring blue collar workers, this includes factory workers, maintenance workers, construction, the service industries, warehouses, and so on. So how can we set ourselves apart? We need to understand what these employees value.

Secondly, we know consumers and employees are placing more value on employee treatment and fair practices in agriculture. Thomas Maloney, Cornell University recently cited in his webinar, “How Consumers, Food Companies and Advocates are Influencing Farm Employment Practices” (October, 2017) are now taking an interest in farm worker welfare. Examples provided included the Migrant Justice campaign called Milk with Dignity which organized the protest of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream out of the unfair treatment of migrant workers in Vermont’s Dairy Industry and the 2017 settlement that was reached. Within the Milk with Dignity agreement signed by Ben & Jerry’s it promised to give dairy workers in their supply chain a full day off each week, pay Vermont’s minimum wage, have 8 hours between shifts, and guarantee that housing will include a real bed, electricity and clean running water, and pay premiums to producers. This worker led movement is one of many happening across the country in agriculture. He continued to point out that as of 2017, four states had overtime pay provisions and twelve states have collective bargaining provisions for farm workers enacted into law.

Within agriculture labor availability and retention, still places high on the list of “issues to be resolved”. As dairy and livestock operations continue to evolve, the need for owners and managers to be skilled in the area of employee management has also increased. We know this is not typically a skillset that agriculture employers rank highly at, however, those that have placed a higher priority on improving this area along with the daily task of managing the dairy or livestock operation are more likely to be successful.

Outside of the typical benefits that we think of in the workplace, (paid vacation, insurance, leave time, sick leave, bonuses, retirement, profit sharing, ag products, and housing) there are other areas we should also focus on improving. These include communication, safety and shared values. How can we help implement these on a daily basis through our facilities? Many who work in agriculture know that being able to work outdoors is often perceived as a positive, even though weather conditions can take a toll on the body. However, having access to basic amenities (lunch room, restroom) within livestock and agriculture facilities can be perceived as either a positive or negative by employees as noted by (Bitsch & Hogberg, 2005) depending upon how well they kept and how accessible they are.

In regards to your facility what amenities should you consider for the well-being, safety and happiness of your employees? Take a look at the following:

  • Restrooms: Are they clean and fully stocked with toilet paper, paper towels, soap and water? This is important for hygiene for your employees but also helps minimize the spread of bacteria and disease. Additionally, having access to an employee restroom can be a plus for both owners and employees. It can also help keep family/employee relationships on a positive side by not having to access the bathroom in a personal home.
  • Breakrooms – meeting rooms: These areas can serve multiple purposes for both a place for employees to sit-down and take a break as they eat lunch but also a place for training and meeting areas.
  • Refrigerators: It is not only law, but a recommended practice to have separate refrigerators for the storage of food and medicine. It helps minimize cross-contamination but also encourages safe food storage practices. Minimizing the potential for consumption of spoiled food.
  • Sinks: Hand-washing stations equipped with soap, water, and paper towels, placed near eating areas is an important hygiene consideration to minimize the spread of disease between human and animal or human to human.
  • Microwaves: This amenity is often taken for granted, in that having only one, is often considered adequate for the heating of food in breakrooms. However, as an example dairies should consider having more than one microwave, especially if access and time to eat is limited. Why? If there is more than three employees trying to access the same microwave in a thirty minute period, it does not allow for adequate time to eat and heat the food.
  • Locker rooms: A locker room provides a place for storage of personal items while employees are working along with a place to keep work clothing. A locker room can also help insure bio-security within your operation by keeping work footwear at the operation instead of wearing them to other operations.
  • Boot-wash areas: These should be directly outside of your offices, break-rooms or locker room areas to help maintain clean amenities within these spaces.
  • Communication board / wall: This area can serve a multitude of purposes, first employees value communication and want to be a part of the operation. They
  • appreciate feedback, both positive and constructive requests. Employee recognition can be placed here, Employee Notices can also be posted here, Work Schedules, Emergency Contact Information, along with the goals and core values of the operation.
  • Time clocks: These should also be placed near your communication board as it is something they will see and use on a daily basis.
  • First-aid and fire extinguishers: Make sure these are located in a highly visible and open area(s) and are adequately stocked and working appropriately. A central location such as next to the time clock and communication board where Emergency contact information is located is highly suggested. Additionally, make sure employees know how to operate fire extinguishers and how to make a 911 call if necessary.

Even though these may seem like common sense, they often get over-looked on many operations. We often think of our homes as the “center hub of operations” on a farm, not realizing that employees are uncomfortable or even unable to access them. Thus, agricultural owners and managers who place a higher priority on enhancement of their employee management skills and offerings, often have employees that are more satisfied and proficient at their work.