An employee handbook can help prevent disagreements between custom harvesters and their workers — as well as potential lawsuits, according to Chris Shafer of the McClone Insurance Group, Oshkosh, WI.

“Employee manuals make sure that everybody is aware of what the rules are,” said Shafer, a commercial agent and benefits consultant who has worked with a number of custom harvesters.

“At the end of the day, clients want a professional job done and done right, and in order to do that, you need the best employees,” said Shafer. “Handbooks help create a culture of excellence that makes your operation stand out.”

A handbook or manual will state rules and conditions and should include a mission statement explaining that not all questions will be answered within the manual. It should also include that harvesters have the right to add or change or cancel policies at any time.

“But here's the point,” Shafer told Wisconsin Custom Operators at the group's annual meeting in January. “When you put this stuff in a manual, you need to follow it. Because if you deviate and do not change the employee manual, you're going to open yourself up to potential discrimination claims. So as much as this can be there to protect you, it can hurt you if you don't follow it.”

Once a manual has been put together, it should be checked over by an attorney and given to employees to read. Each employee should sign a form that says he or she acknowledges that they have seen and read the handbook, and the employer should then file those forms.

“When we get involved, we like to have employee meetings so we can go through and explain things,” the insurance agent said. “A successful employee handbook would be one where the employer and employee understand and follow the rules.”

Shafer's company offers a sample handbook showing what subjects could be included.

The first item covers customer relations. Employees who act unprofessional in front of a custom operator's clients can cause hard feelings or the loss of a client, he says. The customer relations statement simply says that an employee's actions and contacts with the public reflect on the professionalism of the company, and that workers should be courteous, prompt and helpful to customers.

Other points that could be included in an employee handbook are:

  • Nature of Employment — This tells that the employee is part of the company voluntarily, can resign at any time and that the company can terminate his or her employment unless violating state or federal law.

  • Equal Employment Opportunity — A statement saying the company doesn't discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability or other law-protected characteristic.

  • Business Ethics and Conduct — The company asks the employee to follow all laws and regulations and act ethically and with personal integrity.

  • Immigration Law Compliance — “This is huge,” Shafer said, especially when harvesters use migrant labor. “Make sure that every one of your employees has a valid (Employment Eligibility Verification) I-9 form. You can be penalized very heavily,” he added, if audited and no forms had been filled out.

  • Conflicts of Interest — The statement explains what conflicts of interest are and that the employee is expected to tell the employer if there may be one.

  • Non-disclosure — This part of the manual is to protect the employer's confidential business information and trade secrets. Employees are asked to not disclose that information and, if they do use or expose it, are subject to disciplinary acts and may lose their jobs or have legal action taken against them.

  • Performance Evaluation — This is where the employer tells when the evaluation will be, how extensive it will be and who will conduct it.

  • Vacations and Holidays — “These are probably the two biggest things that we get complaints about with our employers. You're working over holidays, Memorial Day, the 4th of July. Are you going to allow the guys to take off one of them? Are you going to have it be on a rotational basis? You set those guidelines,” Shafer said.

  • Workers' Compensation Insurance — “Most of you probably have it,” he told the custom operators. “If not, you should be looking at it because it is far superior to just having employer's liability coverage underneath a farm policy. With a workers' compensation policy, you are basically holding yourself and your operation harmless for large claims.”

  • Sick Leave — Custom operators have a limited amount of time to get their jobs done and need to set an appropriate sick leave policy to reflect that, Shafer said.

  • Benefits — The statement tells employees they may be eligible for health insurance benefits and where to get information on those benefits, listed within a separate document.

  • Benefits Continuation — This statement points employees and their dependents toward the federal Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) and how to continue their health insurance if no longer eligible under the custom harvester's health plan because of resignation, termination, etc.

  • ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) — This act provides federal guidelines for regulating employee pensions and welfare.

  • HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) — This limits exclusions for pre-existing conditions, prohibits discrimination against employees and their dependents based on their health status, guarantees renewability and availability of health coverage to certain employers and individuals and protects workers who lose health coverage by providing better access to individual insurance.

  • Section 125 Plan — This allows employees who contribute toward the cost of their health insurance to pay on a pre-tax basis.

  • Safety — This states that employees will be expected to participate in a safety program and adhere to safety rules.

Other subjects that could be considered in an employee handbook include:

  • Disability Accommodation
  • Personnel Data Changes
  • Introductory Period
  • Bereavement Leave
  • Jury Duty
  • Overtime
  • Travel Expenses
  • Personal Automobile Use
  • Use of Telephones, Cell Phones, Computers, Internet, Email
  • Workplace Monitoring
  • First Aid
  • Military Leave
  • Family and Medical Leave Act
  • Employee Conduct and Work Rules
  • Drug and Alcohol Use
  • Drug Testing
  • Sexual and Other Unlawful Harassment
  • Attendance and Punctuality
  • Personal Appearance
  • Return of Property
  • Security Inspections
  • Progressive Discipline
  • Problem Resolution
  • Life-Threatening Illnesses in the Workplace
  • Personal Property

Anyone interested in developing an employee handbook or a safety manual can contact Shafer at 800-236-4037 or chris.shafer@mcclone.com.