“I started working in the industry in 2012. Honestly, I didn’t know how to work with cows, and when I started, they paid me $ 7.25 the minimum wage at the time,” explains Crispin Hernandez, a former dairy worker now working as an advocate with the Workers Center of Central New York (WCCNY) based in Syracuse.
Hernandez immigrated seven years ago from Mexico to help support his family. But it didn’t take him a long time to confront the harsh realities of the industry, “I was learning to milk the cows, and that’s when I had an accident,” said Hernandez, “this happened around the end of 2012.”
“A cow stepped on my hand, because of my lack of training, and I was injured,” he said. “Later, I asked the owner and her daughter to bring me to the hospital, but they never ended up bringing me. At this point, I had no idea what my rights were as a worker.”
Hernandez recounts another experience he had in 2015 when he faced abuse up close. “One of the managers attacked one of my coworkers while we were working, dragging him from the office into a truck, where he hit his head and was injured. To me, that was very unfair.”
As Hernandez started working more with the center, he began organizing to get better wages and conditions, and for that he was fired: “They realized that I was causing a problem for them, and that’s why they fired me.”
Hernandez, like many other dairy workers in New York State, has faced many of the problems with what is one of the most dangerous industries in the county’s agricultural sector. As technological and management improvements have brought dairy prices down over the past decades, farmers have found it necessary to increase profits either by growing operation size, or by cutting corners, often at the expense of regulations around workers’ safety and environment.
While efforts at reform exist, they are slow and plagued by problems ranging from the national debate on immigration and labor reform to resistance to inspection and regulation among those in the dairy industry. A bill right now passing through the New York State legislature aims to tackle the problems within the agricultural industry, but the initiative and others like it face fierce opposition from farmers and agricultural lobby groups.
A dangerous Industry
The dairy industry is one of the most dangerous within the agricultural sector. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 34 deaths on dairy farms in New York State between 2007 and 2012, with causes ranging from being crushed by tractors, suffocation in grain silos, and drowning in manure ponds.
A 2015 article from The Ithaca Voice reported a lawsuit from the family of Francisco Ortiz Garcia, a farmworker at Sweyolakan Dairy in Tompkins County who died after being entangled in a piece of equipment. As reported in TheIthaca Voicearticle, Garcia’s family argued that the farm negligently allowed him to use equipment that was "unsafe, dangerous, hazardous.”
The dangers of working in the dairy industry are a huge reason that fewer U.S. natives are going into the dairy industry, paving the way for more and more migrant workers.
A 2017 report published by The Worker Justice Center of New York (WJCNY) and the Workers’ Center of Central New York (WCCNY) titled Milked: Immigrant Dairy Farmworkers in New York State details many of the dangers that farmworkers live with on a daily basis.
Findings show two-thirds of workers said they had experienced one or more injuries on the job, with 68 percent among those saying that the injury had been severe enough to merit medical attention.
The report, which detailed the findings of a series conducted in 2014 and 2015 from 88 workers from 53 farms found evidence of poor working conditions, wage theft, neglect, and discrimination.
Hernandez says that many of the problems come from lack of training in farms. He says farmers are expected to give at least a week of training to new workers, many of whom have never worked with cows before.
“But what happens is that they put one worker in charge of training a new worker,” Hernandez explains “and often the other worker doing the training doesn’t have enough experience, and that’s why these accidents happen.”
The population and their importance
Migrant worker populations in the United States have been growing steadily for the past 20 years. Data in a 2015 report from the Center for North American Studies (CNAS)at Texas A&M University shows that immigrant labor accounted for 51 percent of all dairy labor in 2013. The impact was so strong that the CNAS report found that without immigrant labor, the dairy industry in the U.S. would experience “major negative economic impacts.”
New York State data from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at Cornellfound that the immigrant worker population has grown considerably, from a small fraction of the workforce in 2002 to 27 percent in 2009, a number thought to be substantially higher today.
“The dairy economy has been a challenge now for probably pushing five years,” explains Tom Overton, professor and head of the Pro-Dairy program at Cornell University in Ithaca New York. “If there are changes in exports relative to dairy products, that all has an impact relative to our price and the price our farmers receive. It’s economics. If supply is greater than demand, that will tend to drive our prices down.”
Milk prices have fallen in recent years, with the price for 100 pounds of milk in falling from 21.51 in 2011 to 17.26 in 2016. The 2016 price is the lowest since the Great Recession.
Hernandez says that falling prices aren’t something workers are often informed of, and instead they are pushed to work more: “They tell us ‘milk production is too low’ when in fact they’re overproducing. But it’s not something they tell workers.”
Gutiérrez and the Worker's Association
Carlos Gutiérrez ushers me into a small, dimly lit back room covered in papers, following a union training meeting in Downtown Ithaca. With Hernandez, we sit down and start talking.
Gutierrez is the Health and Safety adviser for the Tompkins County Workers Association (TCWA), a worker’s advocacy group in Ithaca, New York advocating the expansion of rights and protections, aiming to hold employers accountable, and to work towards equal representation of people from all class, ethnic, civic status, religions, and sexual and gender orientation backgrounds. Gutierrez is the TCWA’s expert on migrant laborer rights, himself a native Spanish speaker having lived in the United States for more than 30 years.
“We have a case right now, for example,” says Gutierrez, “a worker was in charge of bringing in cows for milking. He had pressed a button to raise a bar when all of a sudden it got stuck, and the cows fled back.”
“He went to try and get the cows and went under the bar and it fell on his head,” Gutierrez explains. “He didn’t die, but he wasn’t doing great, and three days later he fainted and was brought to the hospital.”
“When he got back to the farm, his employer started pulling money out of his salary to pay for medical bills, even though New York law promises all workers, including undocumented [workers], medical care in case of accidents.”
Gutiérrez says these kinds of accidents are all too common, a result of an already dangerous industry plagued with problems caused by deregulation and what he describes “the farmers caring more about the cows than the workers.”
“Technology has had a huge impact on us, production has skyrocketed as we’ve understood the processes better,” says Calvin Snow, a dairy farmer in Tompkins County, New York. He runs a farm with around 35 cows, which he says is considered “smaller than tiny.”
Snow doesn’t employ workers, instead relying on family, friends, and neighbors to help him with the laborious task required to run a farm: “There’s a neighbor that comes in and helps four hours in the morning five days a week.”
Through his experience in the industry, however, having worked around agriculture since a young age he has seen and heard about the practices in the larger industry.
“From what I hear conditions are abominable,” he explains. He does also say, however, that there are many cases where workers are treated well: “There are excellent farms - animal health, the way they treat their workers – but then there’s just concentration camps.”
Dairy is incredibly important to the economy of New York State. USDA datafound that Dairy accounts for half of the economic input of the state’s agricultural products. But the viability of the industry has been going down, as milk prices continue to lower. More milk being produced than ever before paired with efficient production methods has pushed farmers either to produce more milk or start cutting corners.
Snow says this is bound to happen when farms aren’t being regulated: “It seems to be human nature. You’re always gonna be looking for ways to cut corners, for better or worse,” Snow explains. “It’s gonna increase costs and paperwork and everything and yeah – but you know they’re fellow human beings.”
Paul Foutsis the owner of Fouts Farms near Cortland, in upstate New York. Heruns an operation with around 500 cows, considered a medium sized operation. It’s a snowy day as he takes us through his farm, where the weather seems to upset nothing in the daily operations. He employs about seven workers, several of whom are Hispanic migrant workers.
“The economics of dairy farming in the last four or five years has been absolutely awful,” says Fouts, “What it comes down to is that we’re getting too good at what we do. That’s not just New York, it’s the world as a whole. We’re doing a so much better job at feeding our cows and we’ve outproduced our ability to market it. That’s really what it comes down to.”
More milk being produced means that making the same profit margins as before has become more of a challenge. “At one point we had to make the decision, do we want to stay small and not be regulated or scale up and increase productivity? We really had to scale up to stay competitive,” he explains.
“The only thing agriculture has to use that’s legal for foreign-born labor is the H-2A visa program,” Fouts explains, “which is very cumbersome to work with and does not work for dairy. So, we kind of need–” (he pauses for a moment, and thinks), “–to run the underground, a little bit – to get some labor that we need."
“I work besides them [the workers] every single day,” says Fouts. When asked if he would allow us to speak to his workers, Fouts only asked if we spoke Spanish.
Lack of data
The fact that many workers in the industry are hired on “the underground” ends up contributing to the huge lack of data on migrant worker population size. Getting an accurate understanding of the workforce structure, the languages they speak, and the needs in their populations and communities, therefore, becomes a problem. The exact number of migrant workers is even harder to pinpoint, as many undocumented workers end up using forged documents.
Furthermore, there is little data available around safety and health violations and injuries suffered on these farms. Labor statistics are not reliably provided by the Department of Labor (DOL) or the Department of Agriculture for the industry, as many migrant workers don’t report unsafe conditions due to fear. Many of the available statistics are therefore based on estimates gathered from NGO and university surveys.
Fear of speaking out means that workers are not often willing to file complaints or speak out about safety or health problems. The lack of information on the subject means that it is hard to get a clear understanding of the scale of this problem.
On top of research centered on worker’s rights as undertaken by theMilked report, there has been some research done, including one from the Cornell Agricultural Workforce Development Center. This report includes data regarding population structure, as well as statistics for wage and worker benefits, but fails to detail findings around worker’s health and safety. The report’s methodology, with questions around workplace safety surveys not being conducted anonymously, raises some questions.
Politics and Fear of Speaking Out
Police action is another topic which elicits fear among both farmers and workers. “So, immigration – you know ICE – scares us,” says Fouts, “because, while the workers have papers, you’re desperate for help, and you take the papers at face value. You don’t start asking questions just because they look foreign.”
This fear is exacerbated by the presence of huge anti-immigrant rhetoric in the press, as well as increasing raids and Deportation by ICE patrols. Statistics from ICEshow an increase in raid numbers from 2015 to 2018 for the Upstate New York area (which ICE details as part of the ‘Buffalo Area of Responsibility’). While numbers in 2014 show a rate of arrests not far behind that of 2018, the increasing raids, paired with the anti-immigration political atmosphere today mean greater fear of speaking out.
Hernandez says that while many farmers rely on workers, and fear ICE’s role in their detention, others use police as a threat: “Nowadays, [laborers] are excluded from labor laws and many workers are afraid of speaking out about the situation,” Hernandez explains. “There is always fear around the farm owners, many of whom don’t like when workers make demands like, for example, better salary. And some of them sometimes call the police as an intimidation tactic.”
Inspections and regulations:
General fear of speaking out because of civic status and the fear of legal action, and the already dangerous conditions present in the dairy industry end up only further exacerbated by loose regulations which mean that many farms are not actually inspected at all for health and safety violations by OSHA or the DOL.
“OSHA doesn’t actually have the power to come in [farms],” says Hernandez. “They are allowed to enter farms with more than 10 workers.”
OSHA directive number CPL 2-0.51Jrestricts enforcement activities in places of employment with “10 or fewer” employees. Dairy farms do not require big workforces, but they need consistent ones. This ends up meaning that smaller to medium-sized dairy farms are excluded from any form of workplace safety inspection.
Farmers tend to resist calls asking for more inspections, as they can mean more costs for farmers, extra requirements for health and safety, and time reviewing conditions. For farmers working in an industry where the profit margin is getting lower and lower, this can be an absolute hassle.
“Individually, sitting right here and knowing what happens on those inspections, I don’t want to be inspected,” explains Fouts. “On the other hand, we also don’t want people to get hurt. So, we are safety conscious, but because we don’t have to be inspected,” (he pauses) “some things – we’re probably not as – detailed as we should be.”
Hernandez finds these situations on smaller farms to be the most problematic:“The saddest part is that it’s the smallest farms that often have the worst conditions, and the poorest worker training,” he says. “All of this is why so many workers lose their lives.”
Aims at reform
Aims at reform do exist. Groups like WCCNY have been calling for the right to collective bargaining. The Worker’s Center says collective bargaining would allow workers to ask for better conditions. Collective bargaining has been guaranteed to all workers in the country except those in agriculture since FDR’s reforms and the institution of labor laws in the 1930s, an era when many of those who worked in agriculture were primarily black tenant farmers in the south.
A bill going through the New York State Senate now proposes reforms to labor law, which would give farm workers many of the rights excluded to them under the 1930s labor acts. This bill, Senate Bill 2837, aims to, among other things, to grant collective bargaining rights to farmworkers. Laws similar to this have been passed in states like California and Hawaii.
The law also proposes amendments to public health law in relation to the application of sanitary regulations in farms and to worker compensation law, which farmers feel is the most problematic part of the proposal.
“With the ‘Fair Worker Farm Labor Bill’ and there’s a number of things in there, most of it does not affect us,” explains Fouts, “like the unemployment insurance and workers comp, we’re above that threshold we’ve been paying that for years. We don’t have to pay disability, we would after that, and I don’t want the expense, but there’s a benefit to it.”
“Well, with this bill’s coming through, if it’s more than 8 hours a day, I have to pay overtime, I can’t afford to pay time and a half,” explains Fouts. “I have to pay 15 dollars an hour now, and that takes me to 22, and I can’t afford to pay that, so we have to ratchet down their hours, and now they say ‘well jeez, I can get a job in Michigan, where I can get the hours that I want,’ and they just leave.”
Hernandez explains that this isn’t directly the problem, saying that it’s the legal duty of a farmer, in any case, to pay and care for the workers: “They need our hand for the work they’re doing, and if the farmer employs us as workers, it’s his responsibility to give us better training and safety protections in the workplace,” Hernandez says “and if something happens to us in the farm, for example, an accident, the farmer needs to do something.”
“We’re not close to the U.S. government through the Senate and House of Representatives passing any sort of law that covers all farmworkers in agriculture,” explains Gutiérrez. “Nevertheless, if we succeed in passing a law in the New York State Senate on agricultural worker rights, it would help make things better right away. But, one of the main points of opposition is actually the farmers and the agricultural industry.”
“There are always farmers against these measures in the Senate,” Hernandez adds passionately, “because it does not suit them, because they want to keep conditions as they are today.”
Gutiérrez talks about another project, an initiative called “Green Light NY: Driving Together,”which would allow migrant workers to get driving licenses, providing them with ID as well as means of transportation.
“This would allow workers to drive places on their own and get food,” Hernandez says, “and we want the farmers to support this because it would benefit them, it’s not just us who are going to get benefited from this."
The Problem with Growth
The combination of a) lack of inspection due to loose regulations, b) lack of worker representation because of fear speaking of out based around the political dialogue around immigration and immigration law, and c) continually lowering milk prices, presents a fundamental problem.
The impact of this continued growth can be seen in everything from labor conditions and farmer pay to the environment. The “relentless capitalistic drive to efficiency,” (as Snow explains it) continues to push the price of milk down which dairy farmers’ pay is based on. As farmers make less money from the milk they sell, they are pushed to either expand production or cut corners on things like workers’ safety and environmental regulations.
“There’s a strong entrepreneurial spirit in this country,” says Snow, “even the Secretary of Agriculture said farms need to quit expanding but, they’re just shooting themselves in the foot.”
Snow advocates something he calls “supply management,” akin to a quota system for milk production. “Supply management system says, ‘O.K. cow you’ve been making a xamount pounds of milk a year for quite a while we’ll give you that quota,’” Snow explains. “And then there’s gonna be a board that says ‘O.K. the United States needs about xbillion pounds of milk per year. If they want to up production and need to, they can just give everyone another xpercent [production].”
Large-scale economic reform in the US is not likely to happen anytime soon, however, and legislation like New York State Senate Bill 2837 and the Greenlight initiative are not guaranteed to pass. In all cases, the danger for workers persists today.
“They want to get the milk production they want, and that’s important, but if an accident happens to a worker, sometimes some farm owners don’t even want to bring them to the hospital. For example, when I had my injury, I was in front of the farm owner and told them my hand was bleeding, and they only gave me a Band-Aid. It shouldn’t be this way. They should have brought me to the hospital. But they didn’t.”
Hernandez adds that whether the law passes or not, what he and others do at the Workers Center of Central New York is continuing to educate workers so that they are aware of their basic rights.
“It’s just not fair. The work is so important because we do the work that no one wants to do,” says Hernandez. “For example, we work 12 hours in the milking parlors. There’s yogurt, there’s cheese, there’s milk, in the supermarkets – that’s because there are workers working 365 days out of the year. And if they get a day off, and extra hours, the farmers complain, but the economy of New York State is one of the strongest, and that’s thanks to the workers.”