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Farming Through COVID-19

By Katie Dehlinger
DTN Farm Business Adviser

MOUNT JULIET, Tenn. (DTN) — Seventy percent of farms and agribusinesses have already made changes in response to the coronavirus pandemic, according to a non-scientific poll conducted by AgHires, a leading agricultural recruiting firm.

Lori Culler, AGHires founder and DTN’s HR Coach, said she’s hearing vast differences of opinion about the threat COVID-19 poses not only from farm to farm, but also within farms.

“What we can’t have on the farm is some employees who are being extremely cautious and others are being extremely careless. And without ground rules set and in place, you’re going to have frustration and discontent among your team members. Not having policies in place can actually be more detrimental to your work culture,” she said on a recent DTN webinar called “Farming Through COVID-19: Managing Labor and Employee Issues During the Pandemic.”

Culler said every farm will have different policies based on what works for them. The key is to establish ground rules, post them where people will see them and hold people accountable.

Social distancing guidelines suggest keeping 6 feet in between people, and Culler suggests that instead of an in-person meeting every morning, maybe you send everyone detailed instructions by text, email or chat group. Large farms may find video or phone conferencing tools like Zoom to be effective.

“If you can, assign one truck, one tractor per person,” she said. If that’s not possible, she suggests creating a set of expectations about how to clean that piece of equipment before handing it over to the next operator. You may also want to offer gloves as an option for your employees.

Culler suggests discussing sanitation and illness prevention measures in detail, including things like keeping shop doors and office windows open to promote air flow since the virus does stay in the air for a period of time.

One farm she works with decided to wipe down doorknobs and other commonly touched surfaces four times a day and do a thorough cleaning of all surfaces like countertops at the end of the day. She suggests deciding who is responsible for exactly what tasks and when.

Another farm stopped using a community fridge and staggered lunch times.

During planting, many farms encourage families to come visit since the hours are long. Vendors are often coming and going as they make deliveries.

“Our daily interaction has to change,” she said, adding that an ag retailer recently dropped off fertilizer at her family’s farm. The truck driver didn’t get out of the cab and said that a signature wasn’t required this time. If your retailer isn’t as lenient, think about how you want that interaction to occur.

While it may sound extreme, Culler suggests encouraging your employees to take precautions outside of work hours. It’s also legal to take employees’ temperatures in the morning and send someone home if you’re not comfortable with the reading.

Usually planting season is time to go, go, go, Culler said, and most of the time if an employee can make it through a shift when they have the sniffles or don’t feel the greatest, they’re encouraged to do so. “Encourage employees to speak up and let them know it’s acceptable” to go home sick.

Before you send anyone home, ask them a few questions — who they’ve interacted with, what equipment they’ve been on and what they’ve touched throughout the day — so you know what to sanitize, who to talk to and what to make sure is extra clean.

“If someone is coughing a lot, or they just don’t look like they’re themselves and they’re just pushing through it, you can send them home. That’s okay. You have to pay them until the time they leave, and then you have to pay them sick leave that will be reimbursed by the government.”

Technically, you aren’t supposed to share the name of an employee that’s sick, but on many farms the staff is so small it’s easy to notice when someone is out.

Congress recently required all employers with 500 or fewer employees to provide 80 hours of paid sick leave to full time workers and a pro-rated amount for part-time employees. The government will reimburse the cost through a payroll tax credit.

While there is an exemption for employers with 50 or fewer employees, you’d have to prove that providing paid leave would jeopardize the viability of your business, and that’s something Culler said is hard to prove.

Perhaps more important is the message it sends to your workers. If you have consistent practices, take care of your employees if they become ill, are flexible with employees that suddenly lack childcare and are generally supportive, it says a lot about your business culture.

“Think about this as setting the tone for who you are as a company and how you handle tough situations with your employees,” she said.

The webinar covered a wider array of labor topics, including the potential opportunity to attract new workers and the current state of H-2A visas. You can find a rebroadcast of the webinar here: https://www.youtube.com/…

Katie Dehlinger can be reached at katie.dehlinger@dtn.com

Or you can follow her on Twitter @KatieD_DTN

(CZ/ SK)

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