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Preparing the farm for the novel Coronavirus
The warnings are dire – the novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) now poses a significant risk here in the United States. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization officially characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic. What can a farm or agricultural business do to prepare? Here are five ideas.
1. Wash. Your. Hands. Obviously, make plenty of hand washing stations and/or containers of sanitizer available to your employees. This includes in barns, offices, trucks, sheds, etc. Hand washing is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of the virus.
2. Prepare for remote workers. Of course, agriculture is unique in that the vast majority of farming must be done in person. Ag technology has come a long way, but people are still required to care for livestock and run equipment. But some employees could, at least in theory, work remotely. This may be advisable when employees have child care issues because of closures or simply to limit contact. Where possible, provide laptops and remote access to office workers ahead of time in case your area suffers a viral outbreak. This will limit the number of people coming onto your farm or business. Postpone large in-person meetings (try video conferences or phone calls) and unnecessary travel.
3. Consider your employee handbook and sick leave policy. Companies should encourage any employee showing signs of illness to stay home to prevent the spread of disease to healthy workers. Employers can require that an infected or at-risk employee stay home from work if the employer has a reasonable objective belief that the employee poses a direct threat to the workforce. This might be a time to analyze whether a temporary increase in available sick leave is appropriate. There may be some employees who abuse it, but a generous sick leave policy could help to prevent more significant impacts to other employees and the bottom line. Any temporary change in policy must be documented and applied consistently to similarly situated employees. Consult your attorney if you have questions about how to implement such a change. Despite the public health crisis, companies still must comply with the numerous labor and employment laws on the local, state, and federal levels (anti-discrimination laws, as well as laws governing worker safety, worker privacy, wage and hour requirements, and protections for workers with disabilities, etc.). Eligible employees may use FMLA leave to care for themselves or a family member.
4. Evaluate labor and supply needs. The National Pork Producers sent a letter to US government officials on Mach 10, 2020, outlining the potential damage the virus could do to an already tight labor supply for livestock farms. The NPPC “called on federal, state, and local governments to work together to develop a response to COVID-19 that protects public health and, whenever possible, supports animal care and minimizes disruptions to the U.S. pork production supply chain and consumers. NPPC also called on the administration to develop support plans for hog farmers if labor-related bottlenecks in the supply chain prevent hogs from being marketed.” Farms and businesses should prepare for the possibility that they will be short on employees at some point during this crisis. Are there things that can be done remotely? Can technology help bridge the gap? Depending on the size of your operation, this may mean more hours for owners and their family. Planning now for the potential of a labor shortage will ease the burden if and when it occurs. As more businesses shut down, ban travel, or reduce employees, farming operations will be impacted too. A livestock operation should ensure it has sufficient feed, medication, equipment, and vaccines to last through a short disruption. Talk to your veterinarian about what you can do to prepare. Many raw materials come from China, which is seeing economic disruptions from the virus. Businesses should ensure they have necessary supplies to withstand a short disruption as well. Owners and managers should talk to customers and suppliers to discuss now the plans should the virus disrupt daily business activities.
5. Communicate! This outbreak is coming on the heels of low grain prices, a tight labor market, damaging trade policy, rural opioid epidemics, and increased activism targeting livestock operations. Agriculture has been put in a difficult place. The novel coronavirus is another hurdle for farms and ag businesses to address. Clear communication is a must so employees, clients, agents, and others know what to expect. Owners and managers should communicate plans and changes in polices to employees via email, printed materials, and phone calls or teleconferences. Provide these materials in the language spoken by employees. Seek information from valid government resources like the CDC and your local health department. Anticipate future disruptions and plan how to address them. Communicate these plans to employees. Stay calm, but vigilant. And wash your hands!
Editor's Note: Brianna J. Schroeder is an attorney with Janzen Ag Law, which is based in Indiana. This article was originally published by Janzen Ag Law.