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Answering the "Do I need workers’ comp insurance?" question on your own.

A prudent farmer should know if he or she is required by law to carry workers’ compensation insurance. When you can’t ask an attorney, doing your own legal research can work if you have a little time and tenacity. Here are ideas for learning the workers’ comp laws of your own state.

What’s the situation?

Farmer Andrew is ready. He’s got two acres of land that he leased from his uncle, a spot at a local farmers’ market, and a friend from college to help him out for the summer. Andrew’s finances are tight: He only wants to buy the essentials, so he’s choosing only basic tools. To reduce costs, he’ll wait on a wash station, a market display, and insurance.

Where does the law come in?

Andrew might not have much of a choice in choosing whether to buy workers’ comp insurance. Depending on his state’s laws, workers’ comp might be a required purchase for a beginning farmer planning to use employees. How is a guy to determine the legal requirements if he doesn’t want to call an attorney? Well, calling an attorney really is the quickest way to get the answer. If you can’t do that, this post is a quick guide to legal research avenues. 

Details, please:

I wish I could post a simple spreadsheet that has each state indexed to the farm-related rule. But such a spreadsheet wouldn’t be very simple at all. Usually workers’ compensation laws will cover almost all employees. But agriculture is special, and these laws often have exceptions allowing some farms–as defined by number of employees, size, the duration of  employment, and/or the amount of wages paid–to avoid the insurance requirement.

Thus, farmers will have to do a little digging to find a rule specific to their situation. The first thing to do is to call the workers’ compensation office. The state may have an information hotline that provides quick answers. However, it’s quite possible the department staff won’t be able to answer your question, especially if some interpretation of the law is necessary to make a judgment regarding your particular farm. A second option is to call an insurance agent who sells workers’ comp insurance. He or she might have encountered your situation before. But, again, if he or she doesn’t work with many farmers or is uncomfortable interpreting the law for you, you might not find your answer.

A farmer, being the DIY sort, might blaze a path forward and determine for himself if it’s required. Where would such a brave soul begin? Try the workers’ compensation office’s website: It might have a guide that specifically addresses farm employers. Or you might try the state’s insurance commissioner’s office for publications.

Finding resources on various websites can be time-consuming and distracting.  Are you lucky enough to live in Wisconsin? The Wisconsin Law Library collects information from agencies and even produces its own guides to legal topics. Look to see if your state has a similar government library. Your local law school may compile information as well. Law school libraries are often available for individual guidance–stop by or call the reference desk and ask a librarian where to find answers.

If all else fails, you might try reading the law yourself. Most states publish their laws on public websites, so you just have to find them. In Colorado, search for the “Office of Legislative Legal Services.” In Michigan, look for the “Michigan Legislature.” You get the idea. Once you find an index of your state laws, browse or search for the workers’ compensation title.

Perusing the workers’ comp statute might be overwhelming at first. If you can’t find anything about farming or agriculture, check the definition of “employer.” You might find that farms aren’t actually considered employers. Then consult the definitions to figure out what a “farm” is. After that, you might have to crunch some numbers to see if you are a “farm.” Statutes can be so disorienting that in the end you still aren’t certain if you have the answer. At this point especially, your local reference librarian may provide assistance.

I know this blog post doesn’t do much to answer the very simple question of which farms are required by law to purchase workers’ comp insurance. For that I apologize. However, I do hope this post gives you a few resources to learn your legal obligations, whether it’s workers’ comp or not.
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