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Valued Workers Are a Bonus

September 15, 2014

Originally published by Michigan Farm News on September 15, 2014; republished with permission.

As the end of harvest activities approaches, farmers should consider year-end bonus issues and worker recruitment for 2015. Both issues have potential to improve worker commitment to the farm if handled well, and potential liability if not handled appropriately.

Many agricultural employers pay year-end bonuses particularly to retain workers for crops that extend later. However, those employers are not always clear in their employment documents how those bonuses will be paid. When preparing to pay a year-end bonus, employers should review any provisions within their employment documents and pay any bonus consistent with those provisions. If bonus provisions were not disclosed, farmers may pay a bonus and should communicate at an employee meeting, individually or in the pay documents that the bonus is in appreciation for the commitment to assist the farm through the harvest. This communication helps build the team dynamic and expresses the recognition that team effort is required for the successful operations through the end of harvest.

The potential liability for year-end bonuses is created when farmers fail to follow their bonus provisions or with disputes over when the season ends for employees. Often when employment disputes arise, workers will claim that employers terminated workers or caused them to quit in order to avoid paying a year-end bonus. Workers also claim they should be paid the bonus because they would have completed the season without the employer’s termination. Employers should carefully document the business reasons leading to termination or a voluntary quit and then assess the impact of the employment action under the bonus provisions. Employers may wish to specifically define year-end bonus provisions to manage this potential liability.

Farmers should also plan to recruit workers as the season ends to help secure 2015 workers and assure compliance for worker recruitment. Farmers should identify and specifically recruit valued workers to return next year. Often farmers rely on conversations among workers or with supervisors throughout the winter and spring to secure workers. This approach may not provide clear information about the workers’ intentions to work with the farm and creates potential liability under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSAWPA). 

MSAWPA requires that workers are provided the terms and conditions of employment at the time of recruitment. While farm plans may change throughout the winter, farmers should now consider plans for next year, make any required adjustments to disclosure documents and distribute the disclosures to valued workers at the end of their work to recruit them to return next year. During the conversation, the farmers should collect phone numbers and emails so that the farmers may keep in contact with the workers to update on timing and work potential as plans further develop. 

Both the year-end bonus and recruitment issues highlight the importance of employment disclosures. While Federal Department of Labor and Michigan Works offers samples and information to create those disclosures, those resources do not provide the specificity or explanations required to avoid the potential employment issues outlined above. However, Michigan Farm Bureau and Varnum partnered on an employment guide with easily customized templates to outline compliance steps to manage these issues and more. To learn more, visit Farm Bureau Resources on the Michigan Farm Bureau website. To order a print version, call Varnum at 616-336-6729.

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