Meat Processor Workforce Management

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What’s on this page?

Finding capable and willing labor is a serious challenge for all meat processors, regardless of size. Small plants often require a higher average skill level than large plants but cannot afford to pay a high wage through the employee-training period. While we do not know of any great solutions to this issue, we can offer some ideas and programs that have worked reasonably well for other small plants.

Q: How do I find employees?  

Q: How do I train them?

Q: How do I keep them?

Q: What about employee safety and Workers Comp?

Schools in the U.S. and Canada offering vocational meat cutting programs

Click here for a list of schools that offer vocation meat cutting programs- contact these schools for a list of recent grads or soon-to-be graduates and you might just find the employee you are looking for.

Workforce Investment Act (WIA)

As many plant owners will tell you and agency representatives will admit, simply posting a small meat plant job through your state’s Workforce Development office will probably not be as effective as you’d like. However, state workforce development agencies administer a federal program that might be of particular interest to you as a manufacturer/processor. The Workforce Investment Act was passed to “retrain” workers displaced due to international trade. The program subsidizes on-the-job training by paying up to 50 percent of the starting wage for up to 6 months. (This means that you could start someone at $11+/hr. instead of $7.50/hr while you train them.) To access this program, you will need to contact a “Workforce Investment Act Service Provider” and specifically request to post a job through this program. Every state is divided into several Workforce Investment Act Service Provider regions, each of which has its own funding from which to run this program, but the funds don’t always make it through the end of the year. Find out which region your in and contact the regional office directly.

Ideas for finding employees

A small meat processing facility in Washington suggested the following……

I have found some success with Craigslist and Indeed to fill non-essential positions. But those highly skilled positions I have utilized word of mouth from internal sources to feed in applicants. I have also found that finding someone who can cut meat is easy, but finding someone who wants to cut meat and take names is the challenge. Our best fabrication high-skilled guys come from the kitchens, where time was of the essence and hard work is understood. Former butcher shop and retail meat counter butchers are out there also, but the pace of retail is different than production and most of those applicants never work out.
Find what type of employees you want and then go to their turf. If they don’t know you exist, they will never find you. Community centers often have boards to post announcements on.
You may want to establish some relationships with culinary schools, college programs, etc. around town. Many culinary programs around would love to join up with you to provide externship/internship programs. Also depending on your hiring preferences you may want to check out local government institutions. For example, our state had a penitentiary that trained meat cutters in house for use as a skill upon release. State Worksource commissions are also an idea.

How to set up an apprenticeship program

By Brydie Ragan, T&E Meats

As most processors know, finding skilled staff is a real challenge. At T&E Meats, we took the bull by the horns and started a rigorous Meat Professional Apprenticeship Program to fill the skills gap. Here is some information to consider if you are thinking about offering an apprenticeship program in your organization.

APPLICATION: Our T&E Apprenticeship Program is a 3-year commitment, so we want to make sure we have a good fit between T&E and our apprentices. So, we include a two-day tryout as part of the application process.

CURRICULUM: If we were an electrical or plumbing contractor taking on an apprentice, we would provide on-the-job training (OJT) and send the apprentices to a vocational technical school for academic classes. Most Vo-tech schools don’t offer training programs for meat professionals, so T&E had to design our three-year academic curriculum.  This is a HUGE undertaking.

We researched books, articles, videos, workbooks, and presentations related to all of the apprenticeship topics in order to fulfill the requirement of three study/classroom hours per week for all three years. Some of these resources include training seminars offered outside of Virginia, which our apprentices are scheduled to attend. Then, we mapped the study resources to the on-the-job training modules. For example, before and during the time our apprentices work with live animals, their study materials are related to animal handling. In addition, we developed evaluations such as tests and other homework assignments for each topic area.

OJT HOURS: Mapping out the required OJT hours for a 3-year apprenticeship is quite a challenge. We have constructed a matrix that includes the work activities (by the hour) for every day that our apprentices work at T&E.

PARTNERING WITH THE STATE: The T&E Apprenticeship Program is a state-approved program, so our apprentices will earn an official Journeyman’s Card upon successful completion of the program, just like an electrician or plumber. It takes extra time to coordinate with multiple State agencies, but we think the credential that our apprentices will receive makes it worth the effort.

Management and Workplace Culture

Retaining employees is just as important, if not more so, than hiring new ones. National studies consistently show that employees quit jobs more often because of workplace culture and relations with other employees, particularly managers or supervisors, than because of the difficulty of the work. What are personal interactions like around your plant? Between employees? Between you or other supervisors and employees? If you are not sure, or think they could be better, you are not alone. This is part of what “management” is all about.

Because this is such an important issue, we highly recommend that you take a class on management at your local community college. These classes can help you understand your management style and how to become a more effective manager, covering specific topics such as time allocation, interviewing, performance reviews, and how to handle workplace conflicts. Classes are offered as open enrollment throughout the year or can be customized to meet your business and scheduling needs. Check your local phone book to find a community college near you.

When considering employee compensation, one should consider more than just hourly wage. Some plants offer other financial benefits, such as insurance and paid breaks, and others let employees work extra hours if they need the cash, even if business is slow. Many plants offer benefits in addition to salary to show their employees how much they are appreciated. Some examples include free hot lunches a few days a week or every day, free or reduced price meat products, company picnics, and paying for job training.

Innovation in Practice: Employee Management T&E Meats 

We frequently hear from small-scale meat processors that finding, training and keeping good help can be a struggle. Joe Cloud, co-owner and manager of T&E Meats, shared with us his company’s approach to employee management.  Click here to download the PDF.

Workers Compensation

This page should help you better understand the rates for workers compensation, which are determined based on job risk. The National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) creates a job risk rating and code for every type of job. Small meat processors are, of course, one of those types of business that have more than one clear code. And the code makes all the difference in the rate you pay. 

In December 2013, there was a good conversation on our listserv about workers compensation.  Below is the Q&A from that conversation, also available in our listserv archives (you must be a member of our Google Group to view the archives: sign up instructions can be found here):

Question: We are a new USDA facility in NH.  Finding insurance coverage for our facility and a workers comp policy was challenging and more expensive than we thought it would be.  I want to start looking at getting quotes lined up for when this policy will be up for renewal.  Does anyone have recommendation of agencies that will carry slaughter houses or is there a industry related agency that could help?  
Answer #1: Your sentiments are common in the meat industry.  I’m not licensed in NH and I’m not familiar with the markets up there so I can’t be of a ton of service.  My suggestion would be to contact your current representative and work with your current company to develop specific safety programs for each of your processes (slaughter, cutting table, livestock handling, etc.)  If you do this it will show prospective carriers that you’re committed to preventing common  industry claims.
Also, since there are only a handful of competitive companies that write workers compensation for meat processors, the best way to control your premiums is by controlling your claims.  Controlling your claims only happens when you have a commitment and culture of safety that rewards employees for their buy-in to your culture.
Answer #2: We use Accident Fund.  Haven’t had problems.  It is expensive, no doubt.  One thing we do to keep down rates is assign a specific work type category to each employee.  They are all either a meatpacker (Code 2089) or a butcher (Code 2081).  If they are a meatpacker, they are not allowed to pick up a knife, by company policy.  The cost to insure a worker classified as 2081 is roughly 2x what it is to insure one classified as 2089.  Before we started doing this, the insurer automatically assigned everyone the higher category.

A second thing we do is what someone else posting here called “creating a culture of safety“.  This is very important.  Regular training around lifting and ergonomics and forklifts.  Hardhats on the killfloor. Steel-toed rubber boots.  Every butcher is required to wear an expensive steel mesh glove on every non-cutting hand, and a hard plastic forearm guard on the non-knife arm.  We pay for all safety equipment.  It costs a bit, and may be difficult to implement at first, but this will save you money in the long run.  We found out the hard way.

Answer #3You might consider trying to put everyone under 2089, as this code is “Packinghouse, All operations.”

Here is the article we wrote on this back in 2009 for NMPAN:

As you see from reviewing the specific scope of code 2089 from the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI), it includes slaughtering and other knife work. My experience is also that code 2081 is typically more expensive than 2089 and less applicable.

Note: NCCI code 2089 is not applicable in California and Montana. I do not know why.

Response from Original Poster: Thank you this is all helpful.  I’ll have to look into this with our current carrier.  We make sausage, but other than that we are just processing raw ground and raw non-ground product.  The way I read it we would have to fall under code 2081 because we don’t do processed meats like smoking or curing.     

We have five full time employees plus my husband and I, but only two of the employees are involved with handling animals and slaughter.  These slaughter employees do work in the processing room two days a week, but the three in the processing room never work on the slaughter floor.  Possibly they could be coded differently as someone else had suggested.  

Answer #4: Great comments so far.  I would caution people against getting to caught up on class codes.  The rates vary from state to state and year to year.  For example, the 2089 rate illustrated in the NMPAN work comp. article in 2009 was $3.37 – in 2013 that rate is $5.47.  2081 was $10.89 in 2009, in 2013 its $8.03.  Keep in mind, though, if you’re changing class codes quite a bit within an NCCI state, you could be subject to a class code inspection that could result in unintended results because once the NCCI has rendered their decision, the insurance carrier has to comply with their decision.  

The best way to control workers compensation premium is to be proactive about safety.  Meat processing is a dangerous industry and without the proper PPE and a safety culture that rewards safety, losses will happen and will eventually reflect in your experience modification.  The same is true about all insurance for meat processors.  Since there are limited markets for meat processing operations, shopping your insurance will only get you so far.  Being proactive about preventing claims will go a long way.
Response from Original Poster: I’d take any one of these rates over what we are paying now.  We are a new business that opened in September.  Because we are new it’s an assigned risk policy.  We are coded as 2081 and our rate from the start was and still is $11.03.  We’ve had one claim already, so I don’t know what that will do to this rate.  

Thank you for your ideas on creating a culture of safety.  We do understand the importance of this, but will need to do more documentation of it.

Answer #5: Thanks for the advice, which has me chuckling, since I just finished reading my audit report from Accident Fund, wherein they switched all of my employees to the expensive Code 2081, eliminating Code 2089, as we do not “Process Meat”, simply “butcher livestock”.  I think this means I owe them a lot of money.  Will have to follow up with them next week and see how it all falls out.

Best advice – stay safe, don’t have accidents.  Most typically, this means a knife cut, but not always.



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