Seasonal Employees And The Wine Industry

For employers in the wine industry, it is not uncommon for seasonal workers to make up a significant portion of the total workforce.  It is important, therefore, to understand that seasonal workers can give rise to unique legal issues, including issues surrounding severance obligations in the event a seasonal employee is terminated without cause.

Full-time, year round employees who are terminated without cause are, generally speaking, entitled to severance pay determined based on factors like age, length of employment, character of job, position held, etc.  Most employers are aware that these legal obligations for severance exist with respect to regular full time employees.  What happens, however, in the case of a seasonal winery employee who is not hired back for a particular season after having worked for the winery in past seasons?  Will the employer owe severance obligations to the seasonal employee even though the same as they would to a regular full time employee? 

To answer these questions, it is necessary to look more closely at the true nature of the employment relationship between the employer and the seasonal worker.  A Court looking at these issues is going to try and determine if the particular employee was an employee whose employment effectively ended each season such that he or she was rehired each season or whether the employee was effectively a full-time seasonal employee.  Factors like whether the employee is receiving employment benefits like regular full-time employees, whether employee retained employer property in the off-season and whether the employee signed written employment contracts each season will impact the analysis undertaken by a Court.  The longer a seasonal employee has been returning to work for a particular employer will also increase the likelihood that the employee will be deemed to be a full time seasonal employee.

At the end of the day, a seasonal employee who is found to be a full time seasonal employee (i.e. one who is effectively employed each season) will, much like a regular full time employee, be entitled to severance in the event that they are not hired back to work in a particular season.  If it is an employer’s intention to minimize exposure to severance obligations for seasonal employees, it is important to ensure that seasonal employees are hired each season for a definite term, and make it explicit, preferably in the form of a written contract, that the term of employment ends upon the conclusion of the season and that any past employment terms are not recognized during each successive season. 

The foregoing is only a basic overview of the issues that may face winery employers who employ seasonal workers.  As an employer, if you have questions or concerns about seasonal employees and potential severance obligations, it is important to consult with legal counsel for advice in your specific circumstances.

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