Benjamin Manuel Gonzales and other workers in the milking barn at the Cow Palace in the Yakima Valley.
Kris Holland/Yakima Herald-Republic

The dark side of dairies

A broken system leaves immigrant workers invisible -- and in danger.

  • Benjamin Manuel Gonzales and other workers in the milking barn at the Cow Palace in the Yakima Valley.

    Kris Holland/Yakima Herald-Republic
  • A worker at Veiga Dairy in Sunnyside, Washington, hoses down the concrete pad after milking.

    Andy Sawyer/Yakima Herald-Republic
  • Arturo Sepulveda (left), an organizer for United Farm Workers of America, talks with former workers from Ruby Ridge Dairy. Sepulveda and his co-workers successfully unionized the Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman, Oregon, one of only two unionized dairies in the West.

    Rajah Bose
  • Miguel Espiritu, Jose “Gordo” Miranda and Armando Herrera (pictured from left), were among the workers who say they left or were fired from Ruby Ridge Dairy in Pasco, Washington, after they tried to organize a union.

    Rajah Bose
 

YAKIMA COUNTY, WASHINGTON

At first, there was neither pain nor fear, only an unfamiliar warmth flooding his chest. Then he remembered the cow and her kicking back leg. Then he realized how hard it was to see.

He woke up lying on the rubber mat on the dusty floor of the dairy where he works. It was 4:30 in the morning, and he had been at work since 5 the night before. The sweet and putrid smell of cow manure laced the air. As he waited half an hour for his boss to come take him to the hospital, he pressed a towel to his face, stared at the blood pooled on his white T-shirt. His head felt as though it might burst. He told himself that it was only a cut, but he had never felt pain like this before.

Later, he learned that his face was broken in three places. The doctors put a metal plate beneath his left eye. Now, four years later, he explains in Spanish through a translator that the plate is slipping. His eye burns, especially in the heat. He can't see well without glasses.

He is afraid to tell his story without the shield of a different name, so let's call him Gustavo. Like many of the immigrants who work in the West's dairies, he lives here illegally. He thinks about how easy it would be for his bosses to fire him and replace him with one of the other immigrants who come here daily looking for work. He has three young children and a wife to support, as well as his parents and siblings back in Peru.

"It's a job with lots of risks. If I had papers, man, there's no way I'd be working in a dairy. But in this town, this is the best job I can get," he says, sagging into his kitchen chair, exhausted after his 12-hour shift. When he smiles, a quick, almost apologetic smile, his left eye looks slightly lopsided. A jagged purple scar mars the base of his cheek. "Every worker I know says they've been kicked or stepped on by a cow. It's common. But one day (the cows) might break your bones, or maybe even kill you."

Milk may have a wholesome commercial image, but the dairies that produce most of the nation's supply aren't always healthy places to work. Dairy workers are injured at a much higher rate than other workers in the U.S.: Between 2004 and 2007, nearly seven of every 100 dairy workers were hurt annually on average, compared to 4.5 out of 100 for all private industries. Beyond using tractors and heavy farming equipment, dairy workers interact with large, unpredictable farm animals — work that ranks among the most hazardous of all occupations, according to a 2007 article in Epidemiology. Plus, they breathe air laced with bacteria and manure dust, putting them at risk for long-term respiratory disease.

Data culled by High Country News show that at least 18 people died in Western dairies between 2003 and 2009 (see sidebar for a state-by-state list, with links to original accident reports and investigations). They were killed in tractor accidents, suffocated by falling hay bales, crushed by charging cows and bulls and asphyxiated by gases from manure lagoons and corn silage. Others survived but lost limbs or received concussions and spent days in the hospital. However, it's difficult to form an accurate picture of the dangers lurking in dairies because the data are incomplete. Due in part to lobbying by the powerful agricultural industry, the reporting requirements for employers are full of holes, and state and federal laws prevent safety agencies from investigating injuries and deaths in certain cases. Meanwhile, dairy workers themselves are often too afraid to speak up.

The majority of the West's nearly 50,000 dairy workers are immigrants, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture sociologist William Kandel. Many of them are undocumented, monolingual Spanish speakers like Gustavo. Such workers are unlikely to report injuries or file claims with the state for money to recover medical bills and missed pay for fear of getting fired or deported. Though Gustavo himself filed a claim without incident, he knows five workers who went to the hospital with injuries, filed claims and were fired. One former coworker's ankle was stomped on by a cow, and he still can't walk despite several surgeries. Gustavo's cousin was attacked by a bull, and despite the screws now holding his shoulder together, he can no longer milk cows or pick crops and is unemployed.

To make matters worse, federal labor laws that protect workers in other industries and give them a voice don't cover dairy workers; state oversight and inspections can be as weak as skim milk. In the Yakima Valley, where Gustavo works, there are virtually no labor advocacy organizations. And with the dairy industry facing some of its hardest economic times in recent history, its workers may be more vulnerable than ever before. 

"If you're undocumented, you won't complain. You won't ask for extra water or a shade break or to not do a task you think is dangerous. These things lead to workplace injuries," says Marc Schenker, director of the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety in Davis, Calif., which is funded by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. "Their injuries aren't inevitable; they're the failure of our system to do the right thing. It's not only an injustice but a tragedy."

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