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

Page 3

(Click here for a state-by-state list of injuries, with links to original accident reports and investigations)

Furthermore, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the national agency responsible for workplace health, doesn't regulate dairies and farms with 10 or fewer employees. For larger operations, federal OSHA requires employers to report and investigates only in the event of a fatality or if three or more employees are hospitalized due to the same accident. States either rely on the feds to regulate industries, or use their own agency, which gives them the option of developing more rigorous regulations and enforcing them with state money. However, the only states in the West that have adopted their own stricter standards are Washington, Oregon and California. (Arizona uses state money to investigate small farms, but only if someone dies.) Inspectors in these states can investigate dairies and farms of any size, and they require employers to contact them if any injury requires a worker to be hospitalized overnight.

Last year, federal and state labor inspectors in the West inspected 42 of the region's approximately 4,150 dairies. While both federal OSHA and state agencies step up inspections for industries that are considered dangerous, no state in the West targets dairies because officials receive relatively few complaints from dairy workers.

That's because complaining is too risky, says a dairy worker from Grandview, Wash., who spoke on condition of anonymity. Because inspectors conduct most of their interviews on site, workers fear retaliation or the loss of their jobs if they say anything. Often, their bosses are the ones who orchestrate the inspections.

"(The manager) would know when the inspectors were going to come, and they would tell us what to say," the worker says in Spanish. "Everything needed to be perfect that day. They will threaten you. You want to keep your job, so you have to do this. For me, this job's important because it's all year long. You can make twice as much working in the dairy as in the fields."

Other dangerous industries, such as meatpacking, logging and construction, have specific safety standards mandated by state or federal labor agencies. While dairies fall under the general agricultural safety regulations for tractors and heavy machinery, there are no specific standards for how workers should be protected while milking or moving cows. Dairy workers in Washington, Nevada, Oregon and California are entitled to lunch and rest breaks, but legal aid organizations in these states say the laws are rarely enforced. The state of Washington has not fined any dairies for failing to provide rest breaks, at least not in recent history, according to Rich Ervin, the Washington Department of Labor and Industry's program manager for Employment Standards. "We're not in there to make money for the state coffers," he says. "We're not in there to beat up growers."

Former Washington labor inspector Martin Yanez believes the agency has simply failed to enforce the law as it should be enforced. And that, he says, is dangerous.

"If you work those long hours without breaks, even to eat, you are at a point of becoming not only exhausted but exposed to injuries and accidents," says Yanez.

When Yanez worked for Labor and Industries, he would visit dairies at the 5 a.m. shift change. Instead of questioning workers under the watchful eyes of dairy owners, he stood in the road, talking to workers as they arrived and left. But once he began fining dairymen for not giving workers breaks, he says he came under pressure from his bosses to stop. Partly because of this, he left the agency.

In the 11 years since Yanez left, the agency has stepped up its efforts to protect workers, says Elaine Fischer, the agency's spokeswoman. The agency's Web site and publications are bilingual, and in places like central Washington, where the Yakima Valley is located, 34 of its 146 staffers speak Spanish. In 1998, farmworker advocates and Mexican unions accused the state of violating NAFTA and gaining an unfair trade advantage by not extending federal labor laws to farmworkers and not enforcing safety laws to protect apple pickers from pesticides. In response, eight years ago the agency launched a long-term education campaign. These days, staffers visit community events in the Yakima Valley and talk to workers about their rights. Last year, the agency did 19 dairy inspections, far more than any other Western state. Even so, says Fischer, the agency's reach is limited.

"If you're getting paid and if the employer has an accident-prevention plan and there's restrooms and water, there's not a lot we can do," she says. "Sometimes the reality is that the jobs are difficult. People can get injured at work even when there is no safety violation found."

The debate over how well state and federal laws and agencies protect dairy workers no longer matters to Katie and Frank Diaz.

On Dec. 30, 2008, Miguel Diaz, their father, was trampled by a bull as he herded cows away from their pens to be milked at the Tony Veiga Dairy in Sunnyside, Wash. The only witness to the accident was Diaz himself.

After the bull pinned him against a fence and gored his chest, Diaz dragged his tall, thin body to the milking barn. When his coworker, JoseLuis Rodriguez, first saw him, he thought he was joking around, pretending to be injured, according to the Labor and Industries investigation report. Then Rodriguez saw the blood spilling from Diaz's mouth, and the cut on the left side of his eye and face. Diaz gasped for air and was having trouble talking. His boss drove him to the emergency room and left, thinking Diaz would be OK. But within 30 minutes, Diaz's injuries — including broken ribs and a lacerated lung — had sent him into cardiac arrest. The hospital staff failed to resuscitate him. He was 31.

Labor and Industries considered the event a freak accident and did not cite or fine the dairy owner, Tony Veiga, president of the Washington State Dairy Federation. The sheriff's office did not investigate. And the local newspaper did not report the death, aside from a small notice several days later that failed to mention the name of the place where Diaz worked.

Diaz's partner, Consuelo, and his sister, Anna, both hold the dairy liable for letting the bull escape from its pen, for not providing more safety instruction and for not calling for an ambulance to sprint him to the hospital. Diaz had been hurt before in the dairy, when he was caught between two cows that pushed him against a railing. That accident sent him to the hospital with a spinal injury.

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