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This week's Book of the Week feature is Made From Scratch by Louise Placek.

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Chapter 9: Employees

If and when your business needs the support of outside employees, there are many things to consider and understand before you get mired in the muck. If you have owned businesses in the past that supported employees, then most of this will not be new to you. If you have never done this before, sit up and listen. It’s not hard, but there are lots of ducks to get in that row.

Before getting into the details, let’s have a word about con­tract help. There is almost no way you can hire a person in horticulture who wants to work by contract. I know how tempting it is to hire someone who will take full responsibility for their Medicare and Social Security taxes, but there are very specific laws regarding who may hire themselves out for con­tract and who may hire them. First of all, there has to be a very carefully constructed contract for a very specific job that has a beginning and an end. Second, the person hired must have all his or her own tools for the job to be done—they cannot use your tools. You cannot supervise them or tell them what to do. None of this fits into horticulture. You need someone who can do multiple tasks and can go from one task to another under your supervision. You might as well just prepare yourself for hiring employees, be they full-time, part-time or temporary.

Ads and Interviews

Getting good, reliable help is a challenge. If you are like most horticulture businesses, you cannot pay much and the available work force is limited. Rural areas especially can be a challenge. If you are not near a good-sized town, you might have some trouble finding anyone, much less the right one. You might have to piece it together with a lot of part-timers.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are an amazing number of people out there who love working with plants. Trainable people.

Where do you find people who want to work? Word of mouth works pretty well, but you get into some sticky situations when you decide not to hire someone who is a friend of a friend. Another way is to list your position on job boards at high schools, colleges, employment offices, etc. You may have to fill out some forms, but it can help you clarify, in your own mind, what and who you are looking for.

When you begin wording your ad, I suggest you keep it simple. You do not have to go into lengthy job descriptions. Just state who you are, where you are (especially if you are rural), general job title, how much you pay, and your phone number. If qualifications are important, then describe briefly.

When you start interviewing, give yourself a cut-off date. Let everyone know that you will make a decision by such-and-such a date. This way they will know ahead of time that if they have not heard from you by the date you have given them, they are not hired. This saves you a lot of time and anxiety about having to call people back. If you find the perfect person the first day, keep your word and continue the interviews until the cut-off date.

Make your interview as informal as possible with­out losing professionalism. Have something for them to fill out that gives you basic information about them, (name, address, phone number, horticul­ture-related work, back or other medical problems that might interfere with this type of work, etc.). I also state our employee health insurance status, refer to the seasonal nature of the business, quote a starting salary and make them sign the bot­tom. I think a lot of the information on standard application forms is useless, so I made my own form.

I also ask them why they want this job. If their immediate response is, “I love working with plants,” then you probably have a winner. If they say something like, “I just need a job,” or, “It’s all I could find,” then ask a few other questions to see if there is a light on in the plant tower. Remember, this is your livelihood and small mistakes can create whole batches of unmarketable plants.

During the interview I will also give them a thumbnail overview of our business (including our philosophy regarding the environment), and, if they want, a quick tour. Then they get to ask me questions. This is not a test to see how intelligent they are. It is strictly an opportunity to open communication. The questions will vary from clarifica­tion of working hours to elucidation about how one becomes certified to carry the “organic” label. If you conduct lots of interviews, you might want to make notes to yourself (after they leave) to remind you of what impressed (or did not impress) you about the person. When you decide to hire, listen to your instincts.


Once you have decided on the employee(s) you want to work in your business, call them right away and set up a starting date and time. If you have hired more than one employee, even if they are working different hours and days, schedule them to come in at the same day and time for orientation. It is not good management of your time to go over the material several times in the course of a few days or a week. Besides, it gives them time to get to know each other a bit before getting to work.

When your new help arrives, introduce them to anyone already employed if they had not already met them in the interview and show them around. Then take them to fill out tax forms, settle on schedules, read the orientation manual, and go over basic dos and don’ts of work­ing in horticulture. If you do not have an orientation manual, then consider writing one. You want to cover all your bases right up front and have something they can refer to later to refresh their memories. A manual can consist of simple guide­lines for many of the routine tasks or step-by-step instructions for things you do every day. I also suggest you have guidelines on disease prevention, acceptable and non-acceptable behav­ior between employees, tardiness and absenteeism, work hab­its, back care, safety, lunches and breaks, and any other expec­tations you have concerning employment with your business.

Be sure they understand that time sheets are their responsi­bility and have them start one right away to be sure they know how to fill it out. The method you choose should be simple for the employee to use and easy for the person doing payroll to inter­pret.

Keeping Employees

Alright, you have hired some people, you have a work schedule, and production is rolling along. What do you offer that would prevent your employees from quitting suddenly at an inopportune time like, say, the middle of spring? Yikes! It is a tough dilemma if you are only paying minimum wage and have no health insurance benefits. What can you give them to make them stick around? If you hired “plant people,” then the ability to buy plants at wholesale prices is a big plus. My folks walk out of here with an armload of plants and love it. But even that is not enough if they are not happy in their work. Here are some thoughts.

You should be approachable. Work alongside employees until they feel comfortable in the routine tasks. This way you can correct mistakes right away and offer encouragement when employees feel frustrated. This teaches them that they can always come to you with a question about how to attempt a task without risk of embarrassment.

Give kudos for good work. People love being thanked for their hard work and complemented on exceptional production. I know it sounds silly, but a round of applause after finishing a particularly big job can lift everyone’s spirits.

Be patient. Everyone does not learn at the same pace or in the same way. You might need to work with some people more than others and repeat instructions more than a few times. This is why routine tasks should be in writing, in a step-by-step format, and in a notebook or tacked onto a bulletin board for reference.

Take a few minutes now and then to relate to employees as individuals. Everyone has a life that is important to them. If they have children, ask about them. If they have an ailing fam­ily member, ask how they are doing. Assuming this does not make them uncomfortable, it might actually give them a sense that you care about them in ways other than how many flats of basil they can plant in a workday. It can also give you a read on any problems brewing that might cause stress or lack of concentration at work.

Correct mistakes immediately, but do it in a positive way. In other words, tell them what they are doing right first, then show them what you want them to change. I have found that people will respond much more readily to correction (or in some circumstances change) if there is a valid, logical reason for why you want things done in a certain way. More often than not, the reasons I do things in a particular way are from experience doing it the hard way or in an unproductive, inefficient manner. Telling employees my blundering stories sometimes helps them understand the means and the end.

You will have grueling days. Your employees will have days of blunder. There are times when it really does seem like there is some cosmic conspiracy keeping you from completing the work. Try to step out of this stress vortex and get perspective.

Give raises when you can. Even if it is 50 cents an hour. It is not the amount, it is the sentiment behind it. We have never had enough money coming in to pay people well, but I try to give my good employees some kind of raise at intervals. They will not consider a small raise an insult if they truly understand your situation.

Give employees responsibility. There was a time, early in my nursing management experience, that I mistakenly thought that most people would feel their worth in a position by how much money they made. I am sure there are still some who feel this way, but I have found over the years that most people achieve self-validation through responsibility and doing a job well. Give each of your employees an area of the routine tasks to oversee, with specific guidelines and expectations. Even part-timers can have specific areas of responsibility if it is something that only needs to be checked a few times a week, such as grading/sorting the salable plants in flats.

Deal with tension. If you are noticing tension or unease between employees, deal with it. Often it is a simple misunderstanding. If it is personality differences, then you may need to mediate a compromise that is suitable to both parties. One way to prevent disputes from the start is to have short, informal, Monday morning meetings to plan out the tasks for the coming week. If everyone has specific tasks and the anticipation of working as a team, then there is less room for disputes to occur. (By the way, having lists of tasks to cross off when done gives everyone a sense of accomplishment at the end of the week.) Sometimes, if the conflict is serious, there may be noth­ing you can do to remedy the situation.

Be as flexible as you can with schedules. There are always times when an employee needs a few hours off to go to a doctor’s appointment or run an important errand. I allow them to do whatever they need to do as long as the work is getting done. Most employees are very willing to make up the hours another time if it is necessary. Flexibility goes a long way to building loyalty.

If people come in sick, they need to go home and get well. You will not get productive work out of someone who is running to the bathroom every 15 minutes or has a nose, lungs and/or mouth oozing fluids. I have never thought it fair to expose other employees to whatever vile virus a sick employee is harboring. People still do not understand that rest and fluids really will get them better faster than working through it.

Most of what I have said is common sense, but I also know that dealing sensibly with employees is easier for some than others. Strive always to put yourself in their shoes and to truly understand their position. Only then is it a real team.

Payrolls Liabilities and Taxes

This is one of those duties that can be hard or easy depend­ing on how you want to proceed. The thing is, it has to be done no matter how you decide to do it, even if you have only one part-time employee.

The first thing you will have to do is file with IRS for a busi­ness Employer Identification Number (EIN). You will need this before you pay one cent to any employee. This is how the IRS keeps track of you and your employees as long as your business exists. It will be on any and all forms you file whether you owe taxes or not.

It is the law that you take Social Security and Medicare taxes out of every check that goes to an employee. This is cal­culated by multiplying the total earnings by a percentage cur­rently assigned to each tax. When your employee gets the check, it will be minus whatever amount you have calculated.

If you only have a small number of employees, chances are you will only have to file your taxes on a quarterly tax report, but it must be accompanied by a check that has the amount of Social Security and Medicare taxes you have withheld from the paychecks, plus a matching amount contributed by your busi­ness. At the end of the year you file a summary report (W-3), which states how much you owed, how much you paid, and to whom this amount was attributed (which employee). You file a W-2 report, which is in quadruplicate so everyone gets a copy.

There is also the Federal Unemployment Tax. This you pay if you have a certain number of employees to whom you are paying a certain amount of wages in a certain period of time. The government has it all figured out and will take you for quite a ride trying to figure out if you are obligated to pay this outrageous tax, but it is the law.

Then there is Workers Compensation. As with the unem­ployment tax, the state workforce commission has a formula for figuring out if you are responsible for paying into this plan to ensure that injured workers are properly cared for. Of course, your business can take on the expense of injured work­ers in lieu of Workers Compensation, but it could get mighty expensive if it involves physical rehabilitation. It’s a gamble.

There are many other payroll considerations such as overtime, health insurance, retirement and pension plans, sick pay, vacations, bonuses, etc. All have specific requirements attached to them regarding U.S. Treasury Law. All are covered in the Circular E (Employer’s Tax Guide) put out by IRS. This and any other publi­cation, guide or form is available to you by contacting IRS.

Since it is generally assumed that you will have a computer associated with your business, I recommend that you get a good business bookkeeping program that includes payroll. These programs will calculate payroll taxes for you if you fill in the tax rates, and will print out all manner of reports for you. Some will even print out the checks if you have the right printer and check blanks. When I started out, I was calculating everything by hand and it was pretty time consuming. With the payroll program we just type in the number of hours worked and the computer calculates every­thing else. Easy.

You could do all your own day-to-day bookkeeping, quar­terly taxes and such, but many business owners choose to work with a CPA (certified public accountant) at the end of the year to file the IRS paperwork. If you are not familiar with the different forms to fill out and how to apply the financial state­ments you have generated, then it would probably save you a lot of stress (and probably some money) if you have someone do it that knows the ropes.

If you do not feel comfortable doing the daily bookkeeping tasks then, if you can afford it, you might consider hiring a CPA your first year or two to assist you in setting up your books. If you do not know by now, your time is extremely valuable and it might be worth the extra money in the beginning to get the help, rather than spend hours and hours hammering it out by trial, error and blunder. In business bookkeeping, ignorance can cost you a bundle.

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About the author:

Louise Placek undertook the transition from a 20-year traditional career in nursing to the unknown world of owning and operating a small container plant business. With her husband Chris, she bought a hilly, 22-acre site with sandy loam soil, lots of prairie grasses, an oak and cedar woodland with wonderful wildflowers and a 50-mile view. Misty Hill Farm and the container business grew into a successful commercial venture all without the use of the standard industry chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Louise had a mission to grow outstanding plants commercially using only natural, earth-made products. A challenge at times – because there wasn't a manual or mentor to turn to – it has become a very worthy cause.

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