Although food and agriculture has been designated as a critical industry by the federal government, those who work in these industries should plan ahead for how COVID-19 might impact operations. “Start planning now so you have some level of preparation,” advises Melissa O’Rourke, Iowa State University Extension farm management specialist.
O’Rourke recently wrote a five-step guide to help agricultural and food workers of all kinds prevent and cope with possible labor disruptions due to the pandemic. Called the Five Steps to Formulate Workforce Contingency Plans in the COVID-19 Setting, the publication points out the importance of following recommendations issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and how to function during and after an outbreak. The five steps follow:
- Protect the current workforce.
- Prepare the current workforce through cross-training and SOPs.
- Design or update the workforce contingency plans.
- Recruit and train new contingency workers.
- Prepare to function with a reduced workforce.
Each sector of agriculture is vulnerable if precautions aren’t followed. Dairy and livestock farmers are often short on labor even under good conditions. O’Rourke advises farm operators to plan ahead, so if one or more workers are affected, there is still someone qualified to take care of the animals and see that necessary chores get done.
Standard operating procedures
The article discusses ways farmers can cross-train each other and rotate job duties, and the importance of keeping a written copy of standard operating procedures, so all workers will know and follow the same plan. “Whatever the regular workforce consists of on the farm, now is the time to assume that Plan A may collapse in the event of COVID-19 impacts,” O’Rourke says. “Devise Plan B as the backup plan to fill labor needs, and be ready with a Plan C on deck as well.”
Crop producers should also be prepared, making sure ample people know how to plant and run farm machinery this spring. One advantage is a likely increase in high school and college students who are unable to seek traditional summer employment, and therefore may be able to help on the farm.
Farmers should try to follow the same guidance as everyone else — the 6-foot social distancing rule and use of personal protective equipment — whether it’s in the dairy barn, tractor cab, farm store or anywhere else farmers go.
Plan for worst-case situations
In the worst case, O’Rourke advises farmworkers to be prepared to function with a reduced workforce. In that case, priorities and contingency schedules will be essential. “Be ready for the possibility that the farm or ag business may be unable to recruit and train replacement workers,” she says. “Anticipate this scenario by prioritizing the most essential tasks and critical workers.”
Determine which tasks have the highest priority for maintaining the current schedule and frequency. Identify other tasks that could be considered for a reduced schedule. Formulate guidance for the situation where an owner, manager or other key leader becomes ill or needs to self-quarantine. Prepare midlevel workers to assume temporary management responsibilities, and identify tools that may be used for remote communication. Guidelines should be written, widely shared and posted in key locations.
Additional resources on employee management are available on ISU’s Ag Decision Maker website.