Employment and Immigration

Keep necessary documentation and use personnel best management practices when hiring immigrant laborers.

Veteran Arabian horse trainer Jill Girardi Thomas is no stranger to the challenges connected with finding and retaining good barn operations staff. "It's an industry where the work is hard, the entry level pay is low--between $8 and $12 an hour--and the days are long," says Girardi Thomas, who is based in Franklin, Tenn. "And if you can find people who are reliable and loyal, you're very lucky."

Like many in the horse industry, Girardi Thomas draws her workforce from the local Hispanic community. She networks with local churches and other groups for referrals, and she sometimes connects with new hires who have been referred to her by staff at other barns.

According to attorney Charles Baesler Jr., an immigration law specialist in the law firm of Stoll, Keenon, Ogden, PLLC, in Lexington, Ky., immigrant workers from Mexico, Central America, and elsewhere are playing pivotal roles in the equine industry simply because American workforce demographics are changing.

"More Americans are going to college, so the labor pool of Americans in need of low-wage jobs is shrinking," Baesler says.

But filling jobs with immigrant workers means employers must be mindful of employees' immigrant status. Federal regulation requires that employers complete Employment Eligibility Verification, or I-9 forms, for both citizen and noncitizen employees.

Employees can submit several combinations of documents that establish both identity and work eligibility. Submitting a Lawful Permanent Residence card, also known as a "Green Card," proves both identity and eligibility to work in the United States, and no further documentation is required. Social security cards (establishing work eligibility), driver's licenses (proving identity), and other documents are also acceptable if they allow the individual to meet the work eligibility and identity parameters. But just because workers produce the paperwork doesn't mean the documents are authentic.

"Under current laws, employers must look at a document on its face, and if it looks real, employers are supposed to accept those documents as real and hire the applicant," Baesler says.

If after the hire an employer gets a notice from the Social Security Administration or other government agency that the documents are false, he must ask the employee to produce valid documentation. Workers who can't must be fired.

"That puts the employer between the rock and the hard place, because they need the workers," Baesler says.

Equine business owners have options to sponsor temporary foreign workers, Baesler says. The H-2A Agricultural Worker program allows foreign workers to enter the United States to perform farm work, but it requires employers provide worker housing. The H-2B Temporary Worker program allows foreign workers to legally reside in the United States for 10 months to fill seasonal jobs in a variety of industries. But only 66,000 of these are allowed into the United States annually, and they are quickly absorbed into the workforce.

Both programs require that employers register for entering workers, and the application and compliance processes are cumbersome.

"Finding enough people to fill equine industry jobs is a problem," Baesler says, "and it will be until there is broad immigration reform."

With or without the presence of immigrant workers, it takes effective personnel management to develop and retain a reliable workforce, says equine industry human resources advisor Seth Burgess, founder of Equimax, a Texas-based equine industry employment registry.

"Turnover causes a reduction in client services, and it's costly when employers have to seek, hire, and train new employees," says Burgess, a former breeder of Arabian horses. "When you have only a few employees, it can be devastating."

This is his list of personnel management best practices.

Before every hire, develop formal job descriptions Solid job descriptions detail duties and responsibilities for both employee and employer. Then hire based on how well applicant skills match job duties.

Assign job value "Even if someone is hired to just clean out stalls, make sure that person knows the job is important to the entire operation, including horses' health and customer relations," says Burgess.

Request references from potential employees It's appropriate to ask for references, then always check them. Many employment lawyers now recommend a criminal background check as well, to avoid liability for negligent hiring of a potentially dangerous person.

File payroll taxes monthly Workers who are paid on a hourly basis, whose required working hours are employer-dictated, and who meet other IRS criteria are considered employees, not subcontractors. Employers must make withholding tax payments, and provide workmen's comprehensive insurance. (In some states--Kentucky, for example--employers don't have to provide workmen's comp for agricultural workers, and whether a worker is "agricultural" depends on state law. Generally, workers on a farm are agricultural, and racetrack workers are not.) Employers must also match Social Security contributions for their employees. Consult an accountant to learn if workers qualify as employees or subcontractors. Learn also how to calculate taxes, and when and how withholding "deposits" or payments should be made.

"Be aware when hiring that you don't choose if a person is contract labor or an employee," Burgess says. "Federal law makes that decision for you."

Review employee performance monthly If appropriate, tweak job descriptions according to individual employee performance.

"People build skills on the job, and their job descriptions should change as they build those skills," Burgess says.

Review staffing needs quarterly Most horse farms and training barn operators anticipate the need to add staff during traditionally busy breeding and show seasons, but a business growth spurt or other circumstance can also demand new hires. Prepare for a potential workforce expansion by determining what job openings might be created and how prospective vacancies might be filled.

"This way you won't make an emotional decision when you're short-handed," Burgess says.

Review new employee compensation semiannually Employees who master new skills and show willingness to assume new responsibilities should receive pay increases two or three times during their first employment year, Burgess recommends.

"It demonstrates that people will be rewarded for a job well done," he says.

Distribute 1099 statements to subcontractors annually Unlike hourly employees, subcontractors' work hours and schedules are not dictated by their clients. Subcontractors are responsible for paying their own taxes: income, withholding, and other types. However, business owners who use contract labor must provide subcontractors with an annual earnings statement. Consult an accountant to learn if any workers meet IRS criteria for contract labor. Ask also about 1099 statement distribution deadlines and other requirements, and learn how to file 1099 statements with the IRS.

Review employee compensation annually Create a pay increase schedule for each employee based on his or her base pay rate. Pay raises should at least cover the inflationary costs of living.

"If you not paying people more every year, you're actually paying them less due to inflation," Burgess says.

Create an employee vacation schedule Time away from the job curbs employee burnout and communicates respect for employees. Scheduling vacations prevents you from coming up short-handed while some workers are away.

Take-Home Message

There's a lot more to hiring folks to work on a horse farm than putting an ad in the paper. And the quality of the labor force might not be what you would expect if you haven't been hiring in the past few years. You must be prepared to pay laborers a decent wage. "The days of people being grateful just to have a job are gone," Burgess says. "Today employees want to be compensated and appreciated."

About the Author

Pat Raia

Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.

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