On-farm workstays: Creating safe and lawful on-farm training opportunities in the Northeast
Well over 400 Northeast small farmers currently host on-farm “workstay” opportunities. A time-honored tradition, this is one way they get the help they need while passing on farming knowledge and skills. Many see themselves as “educators” hosting “interns” in exchange for labor. Others believe that “a space in the barn and all the veggies you can eat” is not pay. However, almost without exception, on-farm trainees are employees in the eyes of the law. For many farmers, this is an unpleasant surprise.
The On-Farm Workstays Project seeks to make important employment information widely available, and to offer peer guidance to those who are open to self-assessment and willing — if not eager — to implement and document change. Project activities, as described in this report, represent significant steps toward this goal.
The purpose of the On-Farm Workstays Project is to encourage and assist Northeast farmers who host trainees on their farms to make informed, documented improvements in their on-farm housing and employment practices. The Project topic reflects highest priority concerns reported by mentors polled throughout the region; members of the Northeast On-Farm Mentors’ Network steering committee provided “peer guidance” in Project design.
Project purpose will be achieved through the following objectives: 1. To inform – by providing informational material about the Project and its purpost to over 400 Northeast farmers who host trainees on their farms (Milestone 1); 2. To assist – by providing state-specific information and resource links through conference workshops and meetings (Milestone 2); 3. To support – by providing additional guidance through one-on-one meetings or consultations as requested (Milestone 3); and 4. To educate by example – by developing a set of farmer case histories for inclusion in a final Project Report (Milestone 4).
Project Performance Target: From an initial group of 400 Northeast on-farm mentors who receive Project information, 20 will make and document changes in employment practice that result in compliance with legal requirements.
During Phase I of the project (Milestone 1, Fall 2007), a survey on the project’s three areas of concern: Wage & Hour Law/Minimum Wage; Housing; and Workers’ Compensation, was mailed to over 400 Northeast farmers who advertise on-farm workstays. Although several respondees harshly criticized the project’s focus on “government interference” in their operations, a positive response of over 20% (Milestone 2) set the stage for work undertaken during the 2008 calendar year.
Preparation for state-by-state workshops, meetings and consultations (Milestone 3) began in October 2007, and the project soon encountered formidable consultant time and budget constraints. Individual Northeast state regulations vary widely from their federal counterparts and from each other, to a far greater degree than had been anticipated. Consultation with Northeast SARE personnel supported a request to direct full attention to very careful, time-consuming research and review for six of the Northeast states, with presentations and guidance on regulatory issues to be conducted by project staff, not entrusted to peer volunteers.
Research and refined information for six states (CT, ME, MA, NH, NY and VT) was completed; six presentations or meetings were held; and documented work with individual farmers (Milestone 4) was begun by December 31, 2008. (A year end report and resource appendix was prepared and is available through Northeast SARE and on line at www.smallfarm.org/special projects.)
The project’s performance target — from an initial group of 400 Northeast on-farm mentors who receive Project information, 20 (5%) will make and document changes in employment practice that result in compliance with legal requirements — has yet to be achieved.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Workstays project activities have heightened awareness among all participants of the financial challenges associated with regulatory compliance. Instances in which the cost of compliance appears to impact the smallest enterprises most harshly are being researched and will be documented in the project’s final report.
In turn, this financial challenge has focused attention on the need to create means to provide farmers who conduct legitimate, safe and lawful on-farm training “workstays” (e.g., through learning contracts supported by formal classwork and guided self-study) with compensation for this service. In such a system, trainees would become paying “students” during contracted hours spent in the “classroom,” and “employees” undergoing “on the job training (OJT)” when performing work that contributes to their farmer-mentor’s bottom line.
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