The Dark Side of Dairies

1 / 3
2 / 3
3 / 3

Learn where to find a responsible, humane dairy at

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 dusty floor of the dairy where he works. It was 4:30 in the morning, and he had been at work since 5:00 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 to 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 dairies in the western United States, 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 United States: Between 2004 and 2007, nearly 7 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. 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. It’s difficult to form an accurate picture of the dangers lurking in dairies, however, 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 cover medical bills and missed pay, for fear of getting fired or deported. Though Gustavo 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, California, 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.”

Around 40 years ago, most American dairies were fairly small operations, according to a report coauthored by Jim MacDonald, a U.S. Department of Agriculture economist. They kept an average of 19 cows that ate grass from nearby pastures and were milked once or twice a day by family members or locals. These days, sophisticated automated milking systems and other technological advancements have allowed dairies to vastly increase in size and to lower their costs. Consumers have been the primary beneficiaries of these advancements, as the changes have kept the cost of dairy products low.

Nowhere in the country has it been easier for dairies to expand than in the West, with its relatively cheap rural land. As of 2007, the average Western dairy had 550 cows–about five times the national average. And around 80 dairies in the West each have at least 5,000 cows, according to MacDonald. To increase milk production and make it easier to get cows in and out of milking parlors two or three times a day, most Western dairies now keep the animals in huge pens or sprawling open-air sheds and feed them a high-protein diet of corn, soybeans, grain, and alfalfa, much of it purchased instead of grown at the farm.

California, not Wisconsin, is now the biggest milk producer in the country. And Idaho, New Mexico, and Washington have drawn new dairies like manure draws flies; today, the three are also among the nation’s top ten states for milk production. Nowadays, with 39 percent of the country’s 9.1 million milking cows, the West produces 41 percent of America’s milk, which is then processed to make various kinds of milk, cheese, and other dairy products. And immigrants, who are willing to work for less money than locals, now make up a large proportion of the staff.

All 14 of the employees where Gustavo works are immigrants; Gustavo says only 3 of them are documented. The dairy’s 750 cows sleep and eat outside on hard dirt in six outdoor corrals that stretch the length of seven city blocks.

Before his injury, Gustavo and a coworker would open one of the corrals and whack the cows on their backs to funnel them into the concrete milking parlor. Once they were inside, Gustavo would douse each cow’s udders with disinfectant iodine and fit rubber hoses onto its teats, connecting them to the milking machine. After 10 or 11 hours on his feet, Gustavo says, he felt less agile and less able to watch for the kicking back leg of a touchy cow. His face was often just six inches from the animal’s rear, and then as now there were no bars to protect the workers from the cows.

Now, Gustavo is afraid to milk, so he feeds and tends to the dairy’s calves. The pay is slightly better, but Gustavo says he still doesn’t get rest breaks. He eats lunch while he’s working, removing a manure-laden glove to shove a taco into his mouth. When he feels tired, which is every day, he thinks about his three kids.

Like most dairy workers, Gustavo is salaried, which sounds good until you consider his schedule. Gustavo pulls his pay stub from his wallet. He makes $1,175 every two weeks. He works 10- to 12-hour days, with one day off every five days, and receives no overtime pay. That pencils out to about $8 to $10 per hour, which is around the national average for dairy workers, according to industry reports. When Gustavo first arrived in the area 11 years ago, he and his boss discussed only pay, not hours, and he was too happy to have a job to ask any questions. But now he feels he’s at his boss’s mercy.

This is all perfectly legal. Even though dairies have modernized, some of the key labor laws governing the industry remain unchanged, still geared to the days when dairies had few employees beyond family members.

Dairy workers, like all agricultural employees, are exempt from the provisions for overtime pay in the Fair Labor Standards Act. Though dairy operators are required to pay at least minimum wage, they are exempt from another federal law that requires employers to report hours on employee pay stubs. That makes it tough to enforce the law or prove wage violations, says Oregon Law Center labor lawyer Mark Wilk, who over the past decade has represented several hundred Oregon dairy workers who didn’t make minimum wage.

As a final slash in the safety net of federal labor law, dairy workers, like all agricultural workers, are exempt from the National Labor Relations Act, which requires employers to negotiate with labor unions over salaries and work conditions and protects workers who try to form unions from being punished. Without this law–the Magna Carta of American labor–dairy workers cannot form a union unless their boss is willing to recognize it, and they have little legal recourse if they get fired for trying to organize.

“Dairy folks are legally in the worst of all worlds. There really is no federal law at all to protect them,” says Wilk. “This is the last bastion of feudalism. The ugly reality of the world that my clients live in is shocking.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the federal agency responsible for workplace health, doesn’t regulate dairies and farms with 10 or fewer employees. For larger operations, OSHA requires employers to report accidents and investigates only if a worker dies 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. The only states in the West that have adopted their own stricter standards, however, 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.

In 2008, federal and state labor inspectors in the West inspected 42 of the region’s approximately 4,150 dairies. While both 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, Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Often, their bosses are the ones who orchestrate the inspections. “[The managers] 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.”

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 they are milking or moving cows. Dairy workers in Washington, Oregon, Nevada, and California are entitled to lunch and rest breaks, but legal aid organizations in these states say the laws are rarely enforced.

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

On December 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, Washington. The only witness to the accident was Diaz himself.

After the bull pinned him against a fence and gored his chest, Diaz dragged his body to the milking barn. When his coworker JoseLuis Rodriguez first saw him, he thought Diaz was joking around, pretending to be injured, according to a report by the Washington Department of Labor and Industries. Then Rodriguez saw the blood spilling from Diaz’s mouth, and the cut on 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.

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.

Consuelo talks about Miguel’s exhaustion from the 12-hour night shifts, how thin he had become, how he mourned the death of a good friend and coworker, Oner Villa, who suffocated at the dairy two years ago when a stack of hay bales fell on him. As she speaks, she holds a picture of Miguel with their two kids. Their 6-year-old son, Frank, has Miguel’s warm, serious eyes. Miguel, who was originally from Michoacán, Mexico, moved to the Yakima Valley with his parents and seven sisters in 1988. He was supposed to receive his papers to become a citizen any day, Consuelo says, and they planned to get married. Miguel thought his boss was a good man, but he wanted to find a better job once he was legal.

It’s hard to determine responsibility for such tragedies; the work itself is inherently dangerous. Tony Veiga says he is careful at his dairy, holding the state-required monthly safety and training meetings in both English and Spanish. He has an accident-prevention program, also required by law, that instructs workers how to use chemicals safely, how to administer first aid, and how to report unsafe conditions. Yet two workers–Diaz and Villa–have died since 2007 at the dairy. After 31 years in business without serious incident, Veiga is mystified by the recent deaths.

“I don’t know why they happened on this place, as careful as we are, but things do happen in life,” says Veiga. “None of us are risk-free. We take risks every day when we drive down the road or get in a plane. Employers do their part, and employees have to do their part as well.”

Inside the concrete milking parlor at the George DeRuyter & Sons Dairy in Outlook, Washington, men with almond-colored skin scramble between the rows of cows, hooking udders to milking machinery and unhooking them again. Outside, glacier-encrusted Mount Adams rises far to the west, and strains of mariachi music float on the midmorning air from a nearby radio. In the narrow hallway that connects these worlds, third-generation Yakima County dairyman Dan DeRuyter fills a soda machine for his employees, shouting above the motor of the mechanical milking machine.

“I take a huge interest in my guys. If they get hurt, it bothers me,” says DeRuyter, whose dad, George, started this dairy in 1986 with 1,000 cows. Today, they milk 4,600. To protect his 40 workers from getting kicked, he has them milk the cows from the rear through metal crossbars. Taking care of workers makes good business sense, DeRuyter explains: “If you have too many injuries, your [insurance] rates will go up, which is the last thing we need right now.”

In the past year and a half, a number of forces have affected the price dairy producers receive for their milk, causing it to drop from $19 per 100 pounds in summer 2008 to less than $12 last summer. The cost of production, particularly of feed, has remained high, so most dairies in the West were losing about $100 per cow per month late last summer, according to MacDonald, the USDA economist. The DeRuyters have borrowed more than a million dollars from the bank in a year’s time.

“It’s like getting kicked in the teeth every single day,” says DeRuyter. “You wake up in the middle of the night wondering how you’re going to pay this off. I’m not sure we can handle these prices for another year.”

He’s heard grim stories about his peers in California–the farm foreclosures last summer, and the two suicides that followed. Last summer, the Western United Dairymen estimated that 10 percent of California’s dairies, big and small alike, would close within the year. Nationwide, it could be more like 15 percent, according to Peter Hoekstra of Genske, Mulder & Co., an accounting firm that handles 450 dairies nationwide. “There isn’t a dairy in this office that is showing a profit,” says Hoekstra. “These are good people, family farms, not corporations.”

These hard economic times will almost certainly affect dairy workers. Even as dairy operators worry about insurance premiums escalating, they also have to hustle to stay afloat. That means maximizing production while minimizing costs. Dairy producers in Yakima County report that they’ve cut back employees without selling cows, which means their remaining employees will have to work even harder.

And dairy workers remain at a disadvantage even if their bosses care about them and pay them well. “It’s not so much about working conditions as it’s about power and what voice workers have in the workplace,” says Erik Nicholson, national vice president of the United Farm Workers union. Beyond the weighty factors of poverty and questionable citizenship, dairy workers’ inability to unionize under the protection of federal law leaves them at their bosses’ mercy. The only two dairies in the West that have unionized are in Oregon, where the farmworkers’ union was able to rally the public to put pressure on Tillamook Cheese, which purchased milk from the dairies. But such efforts are hampered by the union’s lack of resources: It has only four employees for both Oregon and Washington and none in Idaho or New Mexico.

That doesn’t mean the organization has stopped trying.

On a golden June evening in Kennewick, 25 miles east of Yakima County, workers from Ruby Ridge Dairy, a 2,000-cow operation in nearby Pasco, gathered around a metal picnic table at a local park. As they piled corn tortillas with green salsa and grilled steak, the men listened to Arturo Sepulveda, a union organizer and fellow immigrant, speak about how he and his coworkers successfully fought to unionize the 16,000-cow Threemile Canyon Farms in Oregon, just across the Columbia River. Unionization ensured workers at Threemile paid rest breaks, a pension plan, protection against being unjustly fired, and “more dignity,” he said. The Ruby Ridge workers passed around a pen and cards and cast votes on forming their own union.

The workers explained in Spanish that they want the union to help them get what is legally theirs but never delivered: lunch breaks, a chance to drink water or go to the bathroom. They don’t expect overtime pay or Christmas vacation. As their children ran through sprinklers in the grass, the men shared stories about the conditions at Ruby Ridge, about the stink and the injuries and the long hours.

“A union would be better for the people. The work in the dairy is good, but there’s no law in there. The only law is the supervisor,” said Jose “Gordo” Miranda. “I’d like to be respected like a worker; right now I’m like a slave. If I get treated bad, I have to take whatever they give me because I have my family to support.”

By mid-July, an overwhelming majority of Ruby Ridge’s 40 employees had signed cards in favor of union representation, according to the farmworkers’ union. Nicholson and Sepulveda had met with the dairy’s owners and suggested bringing in a neutral third party to help negotiate unionization. The dairy wasn’t interested. Dick Bengen, Ruby Ridge co-owner, says that unionization would cripple his business. If the workers went on strike and refused to milk, he explains, his cows’ mammary systems would be ruined within 48 hours. And anyway, he says, his workers don’t want a union, based on a vote he had at the dairy. He blames the United Farm Workers for spurring his employees to work less efficiently and less diligently, in order to create a confrontation.

The dairy fired four people last summer, including Miranda. (It has fired six more since then.) Bengen says the dismissals have nothing to do with union activity; Nicholson calls them retaliation. Last August, 14 Ruby Ridge workers, including those recently fired, sued the dairy. They claim that it didn’t pay full wages or provide lunch and rest breaks, and that it unfairly dismissed union supporters. But because the National Labor Relations Act doesn’t cover dairies, the fired workers must depend on fairly weak case law, Nicholson says.

As for Gustavo, when he came to Washington 11 years ago, he never thought about things like unions, or worried about his health. He thought he would become the family hero, helping his parents pay for utilities and his siblings attend school. Now, everything has changed.

He needs a doctor to readjust the metal plate under his eye, but finding someone to do the surgery has been difficult. He works all day, and he’s afraid that if he takes time off for an appointment, his boss will jump at the chance to fire him.

“I’m not sure what to do. Tengo un sueño, I have a dream, to watch my children grow and study here in America, but if I lose my eyesight then I won’t even be able to work,” his says, his voice flat, as his 4-year-old son stands at the doorway, watching.

Lately, Gustavo has been thinking about returning to Peru, but his wife, who is originally from Mexico, doesn’t want to leave. They fight about it a lot. “Es muy difícil. But I think it’s better to leave and be happy and poor rather than to have money and be depressed.”

Excerpted from High Country News (Aug. 31, 2009), the go-to source for great reporting and writing about the American

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.