Farm labor contractor program enhances professionalism

After four years of teaching 12 separate classes in farm labor management, a team at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences last year created a comprehensive program to recognize farm labor supervisors and others who understand and play by the rules.

The objective of the Certificate of Farm Labor Management program is “to enhance the professional stature of those farm labor supervisors who embrace the daily challenges of agricultural production and successfully manage farmworkers in accordance with all the associated rules and regulations.”

The program is funded by a group of sponsors. Previous funding included grants from the Florida Specialty Crop Foundation and from two USDA State Block Grants through the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Funding for 2015 is from the UF/IFAS Citrus Initiative and others listed on the program’s website.

The idea started five years ago. “It was born out of a need mainly in the vegetable and citrus industries to provide some professional training to farm labor supervisors,” said Dr. Fritz Roka, the program’s director, who is based at the UF/IFAS Southwest Florida Research & Education Center in Immokalee.

“At that time the target group was licensed farm labor contractors. But later it became apparent that anyone who interacts with farmworkers needs to be a part of this program. That includes farm employees who manage workers – even people in human resources and payroll offices. A number of regulations that affect farmworkers go through these individuals.”

Carlene Thissen, project coordinator, said the certificate program is unique. “Ours is the only program in Florida that teaches a comprehensive overview of all the laws that keep the farmworkers safe, fairly paid, and in a comfortable working environment,” she said.

Classes focus on either economic equity or physical safety issues, Roka said. “Economic equity issues would include ensuring that workers are being paid properly and not subjected to discrimination, harassment, and other uncomfortable work situations,” he said. “Safety classes focus on pesticide safety, equipment hazards, avoiding heat stress and lightning exposure, as well as training in first aid and CPR. Sometimes these two areas merge, such as when we talk about transportation and issues that can emerge such as being paid while en route to a job and whether the vehicle is safe and safely operated.”

To earn the Certificate of Farm Labor Management, attendees attend eight classes and must pass a test for each class. The format of each test varies according to topic.  Anyone who does not pass may retake the test.  Three classes are required: Wage & Hour, EEO Compliance, and one class related to worker safety. The remaining five classes will be the choice of the individual student.

Most classes are two hours and are presented in both English and Spanish. Beginning Oct. 7 and running through Nov. 24,  10 classes will  be offered and repeated in four locations: Belle Glade, Lake Alfred, Sebring and Immokalee. Additional classes and locations will be scheduled as demand warrants. A registration fee is charged for each class, and at least 10 people must commit for a class to be scheduled. Registration for these classes is available online at the UF/IFAS Southwest Florida Research & Education Center’s Farm Labor Supervisor’s (FLS) website. Click on the “Register” button.

California is the only other state where farm labor supervisors are being regularly trained. The California program differs from the UF program in that licensed farm labor contractors are required to complete eight hours of training before they can renew their annual license. The tobacco industry is partnering with the federal Department of Labor to initiate a similar program in tobacco-producing states.

Interest in the program is spreading. “We have had discussions with a couple of states on the migrant stream with grower representatives who realize that the crew leaders who work in their states in the summer could be trained in Florida,” Thissen said.

Thissen says the training is customized not just to agriculture in general, but to specific crops. “When we teach in strawberry counties, we include strawberry-based exercises,” she said. “Several of the growers have indicated that they want anyone who supervises workers on their farms or in their groves to have this Certificate of Farm Labor Management.”

The certificate indicates that, much like a professional designation in other fields, the recipient has more knowledge and credibility than someone who has not gone through the same course of study, Roka said.

“There are so many regulations that farm labor supervisors need to be aware of, and this is where our program can help,” Roka said. “If people are making mistakes because they just don’t know their responsibilities, we can make a difference. However, if someone knows right from wrong and chooses to do wrong, that’s a different story. Then it’s time for enforcement and fines.”

Looking toward the future, Roka would like to keep this training program “voluntary” from a regulatory perspective, but mandatory from an employer’s perspective. That is, completing the Certificate of Farm Labor Management program becomes a condition for employment in a farming operation. Further, Roka  said he would like to work with an entity such as the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services or the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to administer a formal certification program. “The university can offer a certificate that says someone has passed a set of classes, but that’s different from a certification program that is created and administered by a third-party agency or organization. We believe that the professionalism of farm labor supervisors needs to be enhanced and recognized. Our hypothesis is that a professional is more likely to live up to a higher standard of professional behavior. What we’re doing now is a step in that direction.”

For information about Farm Labor Supervisor training classes and earning the Certificate of Farm Labor Management, contact Thissen at 239-658-3449 or carlene@ufl.edu. Roka is at 239-658-3428 or fmroka@ufl.edu.

Comments are closed.