Feb. 15 2024 08:03 AM

A handbook specific to your farm can protect you and your employees.

The author is a freelance writer based in Rockford, Ill.

Farm employment has changed a lot over the years. In the past, farmers may have worked alongside their family and one or two farmhands. Now, dairies might have dozens of employees. This shift toward more employees means more employee management and a growing need for legally conscious employment relationships.

On a Professional Dairy Producers “Dairy Signal” webinar, Troy Schneider, partner and attorney at Menn Law Firm (formerly Twohig, Rietbrock, Schneider & Halbach Law Office) in Chilton, Wis., shared his expertise on the hiring and firing process.

Terms of employment

Businesses in Wisconsin — as in most states — primarily adhere to an “at-will” employment model, meaning both employees and employers may fulfill or offer a position and leave or end a position without notice or cause. This allows for flexibility within the hiring process but potential inconvenience in the firing process.

If an employer is not aware of what constitutes a termination under the “at-will” statute, they could inadvertently commit an unlawful dismissal. Too, if an employee is not aware of their rights under performing their job “at will,” they might not know if and when those rights are being violated. Schneider suggested composing a comprehensive employee handbook that clearly outlines expectations in order to avoid misunderstandings.

“Include an equal opportunity statement and an at-will statement on the application and in the handbook,” he said, “and reserve the right to make policy modifications.”

This will not only put to rest any doubt as to the status of the employment relationship, but it will also provide reference should anything untoward occur.

Types of dismissal

There are two kinds of termination: voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary includes quitting by word or action — an employee saying “I quit” or failing to show up to work for an individually determined number of shifts. Involuntary termination includes being fired or undergoing a constructive discharge, which is when an employee quits because their working conditions force them to do so.

An employee maintains more benefits when they are involuntarily dismissed rather than if they leave voluntarily; an employer is required to pay them their unused paid time off (PTO) and sick pay. Either way, though, the employer must provide a final paycheck.

“Make sure everything is documented thoroughly,” Schneider said. “Both when it happens — if misconduct occurs — and throughout the termination process.”

Taboos to avoid

Under “at-will” employment, dismissal is permitted without warning or reason, but even still, there are instances in which firing an employee is not legal.

Examples of illegal termination include discrimination (based on religion, sex, race, disability, gender identification, national origin, age, or citizenship), retaliation (in response to an employee’s harassment or safety violation report, for instance), whistleblowing (based on an employee reporting a hazardous workspace), law violations (due to an employee’s refusal to comply in breaking the law), and employment contract violations (in opposition to what is listed as cause for termination in the handbook).

The risk of violating employee contracts is why Schneider emphasized making sure that, as an employer, your handbook does not “give rights” you did not intend to give, such as outlining specific situations that constitute involuntary termination, which would make any termination not included on that list unjustified and illegal.

Employees should be equally conscientious about what’s in their handbook and under what terms they’ve been hired. If employer conduct is unlawful, they may be able to report and/or contest the behavior.

Keys to remember

Schneider ended by sharing what he considered to be the key takeaways from his lecture.

“Have good policies in place, have good personnel, keep contemporaneous records, and watch what you say and how you say it,” he said.

Schnieder added, “Understanding legal rights and responsibilities in the hiring and firing process is important for everyone involved.”

Schneider also referenced the book Hiring and Firing in Wisconsin published by the State Bar of Wisconsin as a source to turn to for more information.

Having a lawyer review your employee handbook as an employer can be helpful, too. That way, no one is in the dark about what is expected during all phases of an employment relationship.

For our 1,000+ Producers
Welcome to this new section in Hoard’s Dairyman, tailored specifically to you. Here we will provide content focused on the unique requirements and challenges found on operations milking more than 1,000 cows.