For many farm employers, finding employees can be a struggle, especially but not only during times of a pandemic.
Farm labor shortages aren’t unique to the U.S. either, Richard Stup, agricultural workforce specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension, said during a Hoard’s Dairyman DairyLivestream on Feb. 3.
“It’s an international phenomenon,” Stup said, noting that headlines on shortages in parts of the world like New Zealand look like they could’ve run in the U.S. as well.
Where the ag labor shortages in the U.S. may differ is in regulations, with farms across the country held under a jumble of state and federal laws.
When state and federal laws differ, the more restrictive law prevails, Stup said. For example, a higher state minimum wage will win out over the federal minimum wage.
The same goes for laws that exempt farmworkers from the standard overtime requirements.
The federal Fair Labor Standards Act requires non-exempt employees to be compensated at a rate of at least one-and-a-half times their regular rate after 40 hours. But employees who work in agriculture by the FLSA definition are considered exempt from those overtime pay provisions.
But some states are now enacting their own legislation requiring farmworkers be paid overtime.
In New York, overtime is now required for farmworkers who work over 60 hours.
In California, legislation requires farms with 26 or more employees to pay overtime after 45 hours, a number that will go down to 40. Farms with fewer employees will have a little more time before they’re required to pay overtime after 40 hours.
In Washington state, their Supreme Court recently ruled that farmworkers in the state were not exempt from the 40-hour overtime benchmark.
Moving one’s operation out of a more restrictive state, while possible, likely isn’t worth it, said Frank Cardoza, dairy consultant with DairyWorks, an on-farm management company in California.
There’s no guarantee that more restrictive regulations won’t spread further. For example, California leads in many regulations, and often those regulations eventually catch up elsewhere, Cardoza said.
Discussions about farmworker overtime exemptions aren’t necessarily new, Stup said, but there are some recent developments that have brought the discussion even more into the forefront now than before.
COVID-19 has put farmworkers, particularly farmworkers who might not be fully authorized to work in the U.S., into the public eye more, Stup said. Also, the connectivity that the internet and social media has brought about has increase public awareness of how farmworkers work.
From a workers’ advocacy perspective, justice for workers is the number one priority, Stup said. And while economics matter from an employer’s perspective, the workers’ advocacy side doesn’t consider that to be a part of the discussion, he said.
Regulations can be beneficial for workers, Cardoza said, but when they stack up, it can be difficult for an operation to make money.
Maintaining consumer confidence is important to avoid extra regulations, Chris Wolf, agricultural economist at Cornell University, said. The key for employers is to drive the conversation, not be driven by it, Wolf said.
Ultimately, farm employers will have decisions to make when it comes to attracting employees and managing labor costs.
Stup said he sees the future for dairy labor as high-tech, high-skill, high-wage and high-productivity.
Creating better jobs could help attract workers to the industry, Cardoza said.
As it is, younger laborers are likely looking away from dairy because they no longer see the same opportunity that previous generations may have had to start their own dairy, simply because it costs a lot to do so, he said.
Employers have to be able to answer potential employees questions of how they will benefit from the job and how they’ll be able to grow in their position looking five or 10 years down the road, Cardoza said.
These management challenges that employers are seeing are not likely to recede in the future, Wolf said. Neither is the risk associated with human resource management.
Having workers who are not fully authorized, while a circumstance that many have gotten used to, also continues to pose a huge risk, Stup said.
When it comes to incorporating more technology, such as robots, into an operations labor equation, operators will have to look at how the cost of labor compares to the cost of technology, Wolf said. For example, costs of robotics might not go down, but if farmworker wages are required to increase, then incorporating more technology might be comparatively less expensive.
“We talking about major investments in dairy farms,” Wolf said, “and you know, smart investments are the way you’re around in the long run.”