“Yes, you can use my name because it doesn’t matter. They have already done everything they can do to me.”
Those are words from Eliceo, a former dairy farm worker in upstate New York. Earlier this year, Eliceo, 36, decided to speak up and share his story with local advocates who are tirelessly working to improve conditions on New York dairy farms and end persistent reports of workplace safety violations, preventable work-related injuries, wage theft, exploitation and in some cases, worker deaths. His story of dangerous farm conditions, inadequate to nonexistent safety training and an employer apathetic to his medical needs is unfortunately not uncommon. In fact, Carly Fox, an organizer at the Worker Justice Center of New York who connected Eliceo with a workers’ compensation lawyer, tells me it’s not unusual for farmworkers to say that employers are more concerned with the health and safety of their cows than the health and safety of their workers.
“Greek yogurt has increased demand for dairy and the state is excited about it and celebrating its growth, but the invisibility of the Latino workplace is really problematic,” said Fox, who’s part of a larger coalition working to organize dairy farm workers and push policy-makers to intervene on behalf of worker safety. “It’s such a successful industry right now and production is increasing so fast, but we’re not giving credit as to why. These workers work incredible hours, they’re afraid of getting fired and their immigration status is used to keep them in fear. …It’s a very troubled industry that we’re celebrating. This isn’t dignified work. It’s substandard.”
In New York state, dairy production is booming, with much of it driven by consumer demand for Greek yogurt. According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, while the number of New York dairy farms during the past few decades has decreased, the amount of milk produced has gone up by the billions of pounds, resulting in an increase in hiring outside labor. On the surface, the situation seems like a bright spot in a struggling economy. But underneath the idyllic stereotype of the family farm, workers are increasingly coming forward to report hazardous working conditions, wage violations and employer neglect. In response, dairy farm workers in partnership with local worker advocates have begun organizing to improve working conditions, strengthen government oversight and shed light on a situation that is hardly idyllic at all.
“The workers themselves are saying we deserve better — they're saying we’re working in horrible conditions and we deserve dignity,” Fox told me.
As part of their efforts to bring visibility to the problem, Fox and fellow advocates are collecting the stories of New York’s dairy farm workers, a large proportion of whom are immigrants unaware of their labor rights and fearful of retaliation for speaking out or demanding medical care for injuries sustained on the job. While some data report that New York dairy farms employ about 2,000 Hispanic workers, Fox says those numbers are terribly outdated. She and her colleagues estimate it’s much higher — probably between 5,000 and 10,000. One of those workers is Eliceo, 35, who came to the United States in 1996, working on chicken farms and in construction in North Carolina before moving to New York in 2009 and finding work within the state’s booming dairy sector.
In 2012, Eliceo began working at a large dairy farm about an hour outside of Rochester. He had multiple job duties, taking care of the animals, cleaning stalls and milking cows. He worked eight hours a day, six days a week — and he and his fellow workers were constantly working, milking upward of 4,000 cows within an eight-hour shift. In February 2013, having already been at the farm for about five months, a bull that was among a group of milking cows attacked Eliceo as he was herding cows from the barn into the milking parlor. He said his employers never alerted him that he may encounter bulls on the job, though he soon realized the fact for himself, and he never received training on how to protect himself from an attack. The injuries Eliceo sustained during the incident affect him until this day.
“(The bull) charged me and hit me in the right foot and I fell," he told a worker advocate. "Then he hit me from behind. In that moment, I passed out and when I came to the bull was still attacking me. I screamed for help. There were so many cows and I was thrown to the ground. My co-workers couldn’t see where I was even though I was yelling. After, the same animal attacked me outside. I managed to get up and get myself out of there. I barely escaped because if I hadn’t, he would have killed me.”
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Eliceo couldn’t lift his arm or walk, there were bruises all over his body from the bull's multiple hits. Neither his employer nor supervisor offered to take him to receive medical care. The next morning, Eliceo found his own ride to the hospital, though his supervisor had expected him back at work and was upset at having to find someone to fill in. Eliceo eventually saw a specialist, who recommended he rest for a week to let his injuries heal and gave him a note ordering him not to return to work without a doctor’s authorization. Eliceo says he gave the note to his supervisor, who said it was invalid, fired Eliceo and kicked him out of the house where he was living. (Farms often provide worker housing, which has a long history of substandard, unhealthy conditions.)
Fortunately, Eliceo had met Fox prior to being evicted from his house. Fox connected him with La Casa, a local organization that provides transitional housing for migrant farmworkers, where Eliceo stayed for three months and recuperated from his injuries. Still, Eliceo wasn’t able to work for a year and continues to suffer from chronic pain that affects his ability to make a living. He’s currently working with a lawyer to access workers’ compensation.
“We don’t know that there are people who advocate for us,” he said. “We are made blind to the truth, as if our eyes were closed. We think that we don’t have any support or the same rights as everyone else. If I hadn’t met (Fox), I would have gone back to Mexico hurt. The first thing we do is take off running for Mexico. What happened to me was incredible, that I crossed paths with (Fox). Now I know my rights, thanks to (Fox).”
Agriculture is among the most dangerous industries in the nation, with a fatality rate nearly seven times higher than for workers in the overall private sector. In the dairy sector, in particular, hours are typically long and wages are typically low. According to the National Center for Farmworker Health, a survey of Hispanic dairy farm workers in New York found that most worked an average of 62 hours a week for an average wage of $7.51 per hour. Nationwide, dairy workers experience a higher occupational injury and illness rate than other workers in the private sector and on New York dairy farms alone, there have been 55 fatalities since 2006. However, OSHA’s ability to enforce safer working conditions is filled with gaps.
Typically, OSHA’s presence on dairy farms is in responding to reports of fatalities, not in preventing them from happening in the first place. For example, a 2013 regional OSHA notice listed four completed fatality inspections since 2007: a worker run over by a feed truck, a worker asphyxiated by methane, a worker crushed by cows and a worker struck by the bucket of a skid steer. This major gap in OSHA oversight is a top priority for the recently launched New York State Dairy Workers Organizing Campaign, which is aimed at improving conditions on New York’s dairy farms and empowering workers to make a difference.
“We want to create a movement of workers who are not afraid to say ‘we need laws, we need protection,’” said Rebecca Fuentes, a lead organizer with the Workers’ Center of Central New York. “We're finding more and more in interviews that workers want to band together.”
Last year and in response to the stories advocates were hearing during farmworker education and training outreach, the Workers’ Center of Central New York in partnership with the Worker Justice Center of New York launched the statewide campaign to raise awareness about the injustices dairy farm workers face and to strengthen OSHA oversight. Listening to Fox and Fuentes talk about the conditions and dangers dairy farm workers face on a daily basis, it’s shocking to realize that OSHA has such restricted jurisdiction — currently, dairy farms with 10 or fewer employees are completely exempt from OSHA regulations unless the farm operates a temporary labor camp.
Fox tells me that dairy farm workers face a litany of harmful and stressful working conditions: dangerous animals, hazardous chemicals, old machinery, extreme temperatures and little access to protective equipment and safety training. Workers often work long, irregular hours, sometimes with no break at all. The day I spoke with Fox she had just interviewed a worker who reported working six hours on, six hours off on a continuing basis for 15 months with only one full day away from work. Most of the workers Fox and Fuentes work with are Hispanic and speak little English, making them highly vulnerable to workplace abuses. In addition, dairy farm workers often live in migrant housing, which means their employer is also their landlord.
“This is the stuff we hear all the time,” Fox said. “Not every farm is like that, sometimes you hear really good things. But at the end of the day, it’s an industry that’s basically unregulated.”
As part of their organizing efforts, advocates and workers began meeting with local OSHA officials and pushing for a “Local Emphasis Program,” an enforcement strategy designed and implemented at the regional level to address hazards or industries that pose a particular risk to workers in the office's jurisdiction. The strategy was a success, with OSHA agreeing to launch random, unannounced inspections on New York dairy farms with more than 10 employees beginning this past July. Unfortunately, the inspection program ended in September, though advocates hope the effort will be renewed. Still, OSHA’s action made a difference. Fox said that since the OSHA announcement, she’s heard from workers who report receiving safety training for the first time.
In addition to the OSHA success, the farmworker campaign also organized an 11-day speaking tour in April that visited churches, community centers and universities across the state. The tour, which made 23 stops, was organized to raise awareness among the public, broaden support for worker rights and cultivate new partnerships. The tour’s featured speaker was Jose Cañas, an immigrant farmworker who has worked on upstate dairy farms for more than three years and who witnessed as well as experienced work-related injury and illness. Fox reports that speaking out in public was an empowering experience for farmworkers — “putting a face to this problem is radical in and of itself,” she said.
“We wanted to educate people that health and safety is a right not only for dairy workers, but for all workers,” Fuentes told me.
One of those workers is “Jorge” (he asked me not to use his real name), 36, who's been working on a dairy farm in upstate New York for nearly 12 years. He’s a milker, working seven days a week — noon to 6 p.m. four days a week and 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. three days a week. He and his co-workers milk 850 cows in six hours and he doesn’t get a break during his shifts. (Fox, who translated the interview for me, tells me that’s normal.) Seven years ago during one of his shifts, a forklift hit him in the head, splitting his forehead open. When he regained consciousness, he was in an ambulance on the way to the hospital, where he received 12 stitches. His employer took him back to the farm, where Jorge lived in farmworker housing, the same day and asked him to start working again just two days later.
For a month, Jorge tells me, his head felt numb — “I couldn’t feel my head.” His employer had said he would take Jorge back to the doctor to have the stitches removed; instead, the employer’s wife removed the stitches and Jorge was never taken for follow-up care. Seven years later, Jorge says he still has problems with his left ear — he doesn’t hear as well — and struggles with chronic headaches.
Jorge tells me he’s never received any workplace safety training, even though he’s exposed to chemicals on the job. In fact, he says when management is handling the chemicals, they’re wearing protective gear — “but for us, they just give us gloves,” he said.
“We are also human,” Jorge tells me. “Just because we’re undocumented doesn’t mean we don’t have rights. We are equal. …We came just to work, we didn’t come to take anyone’s job. We see that Americans don’t want to do the work we’re doing. Please don’t forget about us.”
Moving forward, Fox, Fuentes and their colleagues will continue to help workers organize, lodge formal complaints with OSHA, recover stolen wages and access workers’ compensation. They’re also working to collect 100 interviews from 100 different workers and develop a survey instrument tool they hope to eventually use to grow the worker movement and foster worker leaders.
“Law or no law, we are going to organize and the workers will become a movement.” Fuentes said.
To learn more about the New York State Dairy Workers Organizing Campaign, visit the Workers' Center of Central New York.
(Special thanks to Carly Fox who connected me with workers and translated interviews.)
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.