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Most farmers have detailed plans and policies in place for taking care of their equipment, facilities, animals and crops. However, as for policies that take care of the relationship between the employer and the laborer, it’s a different story.

Fifty percent of the average farm employer’s costs are labor costs, so it only makes sense to take care of labor — even just for business’ sake, said Yakima attorney Sarah Wixson, who represents agricultural employers as an employment law expert with the law firm Stokes Lawrence Velikanje Moore & Shore.

“They need to give people at least the same attention they give other parts of their organization,” Wixson said.

Wixson said changes in the labor market and society at-large have led more employers to adopt policies and practices that protect workers’ rights. With less labor available these days, employers are incorporating those practices into their recruitment for the best workers.

“Some used to take a job because of money or not having better alternatives, but now if you don’t like your employer, you can probably go somewhere else and look at lots of other options,” Wixson said.

The most common cause of bad relationships between employers and laborers is bad communication, she said. The “golden rule of communication” is for employers to uniformly tell their workers clearly what they want and what is expected of them, including how much they will be compensated. It’s best to have it all written down and provided to employees in a handbook, Wixson said.

Sarah Wixson

Sarah Wixson

“Unions usually come into play because you’re not effectively communicating with your workers and you need an intermediary to communicate to keep those lines open,” Wixson said.

Laborers can bring complaints about any number of issues, such as wages, rest breaks, health and safety issues, and bathroom sanitation. The more channels they have to file those complaints or have them addressed, the better for the business.

“Employers should have a designated point person for complaints, whether that’s someone in administration or a 1-800 number,” Wixson said. “Have a process, document the process, and follow up on it.”

It’s illegal to threaten or punish workers who file grievances, and ensuring supervisors understand that fact helps protect the company from legal liability. Supervisors should take complaints seriously and not take them personally.

“The last thing you want is a foreman losing his cool, a worker taping it on their phone and before you know it there’s the foreman on YouTube losing his cool,” Wixson said. “People need to know they’re always representing the company and trying to do the right thing.”

Statements in employee handbooks must be carefully worded because they can be legally interpreted as a contract in some situations, Wixson said. Some statements could be legally interpreted as promises that could later support an employee’s grievance.

“If there’s language that promises specific treatment in specific situations and that language induces an employee to remain on the job and not seek other employment, those promises are enforceable components in the employment relationship,” Wixson said.

Employers should be on the watch and recognize the signs of worker dissatisfaction, so that it can be addressed before problems escalate into litigation or a worker strike.

“You want to address their concerns before that ever happens, because it becomes a very difficult public relations issue in a consumer market where people don’t want to buy from employers who might not be treating their workers right,” Wixson said. “It’s hard to get out ahead of that.” •

—by Mike Faulk