The coronavirus pandemic is uncharted territory for everyone, including dairy producers scrambling for ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and how to respond if someone tests positive.
Cornell University officials Robert Lynch, DVM, and Richard Stup provided valuable information and answers about the crisis in a recent webinar, “COVID-19 and Your Dairy.” A maximum capacity of 300 people signed up for the online session.
Fortunately, cows cannot get COVID-19, so people can’t give it to animals or get it from them. Also, there is no evidence that COVID-19 is transmitted through food consumption.
“You do have a responsibility to protect your employees,” said Stup, a Cornell agriculture workforce specialist. “We want to be able to look back and say agriculture and farmers did a really good job caring for their employees.”
This starts with letting workers know how serious the disease is and clearly communicating, in Spanish and English, useful health tips such as the importance of regular hand washing, disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces, social distancing and staying home to the greatest extent possible.
“Remember it’s not about individuals, it’s about protecting the community,” said Lynch, dairy herd health and management specialist for Cornell Pro-Dairy. “Just because you think you will not get ‘that sick’ if you catch the virus, the goal is to prevent the virus for spreading throughout the community with vulnerable people in it.”
“We need to actively manage this,” Stupp added.
For example, farms should set up daily work schedules with assigned responsibilities, and provide ample cleaning supplies, so everyone is involved helping battle coronavirus.
“Review chemical mixing directions, make sure everyone is doing it correctly,” Stup said.
On another front, farms should review their sick leave policy with workers, and make sure they stay home and not feel financially obligated to work if they become ill. Farmers typically keep going even when they don’t feel well.
“This is not a good time to tough it out,” Stup said. “You can turn an individual problem into a workplace disaster.”
President Trump recently signed into law the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which will be in effect for the next year. The law:
• Applies to businesses with fewer than 500 employees. Businesses with fewer than 50 employees may get exemptions if the act will make nonviable.
• Provides 80 hours of sick leave, full pay for sick or quarantined employees, two-thirds pay if caring for another.
• Provides up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave to care for the employee’s child if another provider is unavailable, at two-thirds pay.
In addition, the state of New York has adopted temporary provisions requiring employers of 99 people or less to notify workers, provide job protected leave and provide documents to apply for paid family leave and Disability Benefits Law leave, which are available after sick leave has been exhausted.
Employers with 10 or fewer workers must provide unpaid sick time during an employee’s sick time or isolation, and employers with more than $1 million of net income must provide five days of paid sick leave.
Employers with 11 to 99 workers must provide five days paid sick leave.
New permanent state sick leave provisions take effect next Jan. 1.
One of the most important things farms should do is prepare for the possibility of someone getting COVID-19, and know how to respond if they do.
“That should be part of your crisis management plan,” Stup said. “In the event you have an infected employee, you need to be thinking in terms of how to isolate that employee. Is there a house nearby? A spare bedroom? A recreational vehicle that can be used temporarily?”
In efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Stup and Lynch also advised farms to minimize work shift overlaps, leave written instructions for workers instead of face-to-face meetings, consult with industry experts remotely instead of in-person, and make use of teleconference and web conference services for other business needs.
With regard to milk hauling, farm employee contact with haulers should be kept to a minimum, objects and surfaces touched by haulers should be cleaned regularly and highly trafficked milk house sinks should be well-stocked with soap and towels.
For farm deliveries, these should be restricted to a dedicated drop-off location and signature requirements upon delivery should be waived.
Farms should also cross-train employees to make sure everyone knows how to do essential jobs such as feeding, milking and manure management in case some workers must be quarantined, resulting in a reduced labor force.
If a key manager becomes ill or must be quarantined, this person must rely entirely on remote communications, assign temporary management responsibilities to next-in-line employees, and consider using an outside manager from a nearby farm.
“The dairy culture is neighbors helping neighbors,” Lynch said.