Farmers SpeakApril 30, 2019

Farmer Stories: Workers' Compensation Works for Farmers

The Zenz Family, Photo from Old Oak Family Farm
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(The Zenz Family, Photo from Old Oak Family Farm)

On the farm there is no shortage of work to be done. Seeds must be sown, transplants must be set out, crops must be cultivated and harvested, livestock must be cared for, and all manner of buildings and equipment require both maintenance and repair at some point in their lifetime of use.

Given this ever-growing nature of jobs on the farm and finite hours in the day, many farm businesses hire employees to help get the work done. Though employment on the farm may be an apparent win-win, as the farm operator is able to get more work done and the worker is able to be engaged in gainful employment, there are not-so-apparent employment law risks that should be considered.

One such legal risk, or liability, is worker injuries on the farm.

As injuries can and do happen on the farm, it’s important for both the farm employer and the worker to be prepared. One of the most useful tools to help prepare farmers in the event of a worker injury is workers' compensation.

Workers' compensation is an insurance program designed to protect employers from liability lawsuits while providing employees with compensation for their injuries.  When employees have workers' compensation available, they must use the program and cannot sue the employer even if the employer (in this case, the farm) caused the injury. For these reasons, workers' compensation is a valuable resource as it protects the farm business from lawsuits and provides coverage for the injured worker.

The utility of workers' compensation as an important tool in a farmer’s risk management toolbox is often misunderstood. Filing for workers' compensation can feel like just more paperwork and paying into it can seem like just another bill. However, as Farmer Kyle Zenz learned, workers' compensation can be an incredibly useful and effective tool in supporting a farm’s resiliency.

Kyle Zenz operates Old Oak Family Farm, a 280-acre diversified family farm located outside of Bangor Wisconsin. Kyle is one of the principal operators of the farm along with her parents. On the farm they grow vegetables and cut flowers in addition to raising livestock. They sell their agricultural products through local farmers markets and a vibrant Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Old Oak Family Farm’s field crops, vegetables, and flowers are certified organic, and they raise their livestock on pasture without the use of hormones. 

In 2013, Kyle attended a Farm Commons workshop, Understanding the Legalities of Your Business, covering the legal issues involved when starting and running a food or farm business. Prior to this workshop, Old Oak Family Farm did not use workers' compensation. The farm business hires workers seasonally, with some working close to 40 hours and some that work less than 20 hours per week during the growing season. The days of work vary as well, with some workers being on the farm 3 days a week, and some only 1 day a week.

“[Old Oak Family Farm’s] employee program didn’t fit the pattern where workers' compensation was required, as we did not employ enough workers for the amount of hours per week to fit the requirement,” said Kyle in a follow up interview with Farm Commons. “When my dad and I attended the Farm Commons workshop we learned that workers' compensation is actually a benefit for the farmer. We had never looked at it that way.  We had always thought of it as another bill. After Rachel [Armstrong] shared that it is actually a benefit for the farmer, we looked into workers' compensation insurance and signed up.”

Before signing up, Old Oak Family Farm had not experienced any worker injuries on the farm. However, just a couple of years after the Farm Commons workshop and pursuing workers' compensation, the farm had a part-time worker get hurt on the job.

“The worker came out to the farm once every couple of weeks to do odd jobs, and was on payroll. They were making some small building repairs, and got hurt badly – severing a tendon and then going to the ER,” shared Kyle. “After the ER visit, we got asked a few questions, and gave the worker the information to submit their workers' compensation claim. We didn’t run into any issues through the process.”

Though workers' compensation provided coverage for the injured worker and capped payment for coverage of the injury for the farm, the biggest issue was that the worker had another full time job that they were unable to do while injured.

“The worker helped out on our farm on the side, and was out of their regular work for 6 months. Without workers' compensation, we think their health insurance company probably would have sued us,” shared Kyle. “The worker was our friend and though they didn’t want to sue us, the health insurance company would.”

Kyle highlights a crucial legal distinction here: when a person signs up for health insurance, they sign or consent to permission for the health insurance company to file a lawsuit on their behalf. So, even if a worker doesn’t want to sue a farm for an injury that decision will be up for the health insurance company to decide, not the injured worker.

Importantly, when workers' compensation is in place, the employer cannot be sued for injuries beyond what workers' compensation insurance provides. So, workers' compensation really does works as a benefit to the farmer.

“If it wasn’t for Farm Commons, we probably still wouldn’t have workers' compensation because we weren’t fully educated in the matter. We had assumed regular insurance would cover an injury, but it wouldn’t have in the long run because it was an employee issue. We are so glad we followed through with Farm Commons’ best practices for employee insurance coverage.”

To learn more about the utility of workers' compensation and other important employment law considerations, check out our online print resource FAQ: When People Work on Your Farm available at farmcommons.org.

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