Absent Federal Oversight of Animal Agriculture Safety, States and Others Step Up for Change | Civil Eats

Absent Federal Oversight of Animal Agriculture Safety, States and Others Step Up for Change

States are extending OSHA powers, overtime, and collective bargaining while labor-driven programs center workers.

A happy and healthy-looking worker in a clean and well-lit dairy. Photo credit: Vera Chang.

Photo credit: Vera Chang

When he arrived in the United States from Guatemala in 2012, Efrain got a job at a dairy farm in Vermont. There, he slept on a wooden pallet on the floor of the calf barn because his employer didn’t provide housing. Two years later, when he slipped and injured his back on the icy steps at another dairy, he worked the remaining six hours of his shift, afraid of what would happen if he stopped.

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During his first few years in the country, Efrain, who has asked that we not use his last name for fear of retaliation from immigration authorities, never felt completely safe or secure in his job. That changed in 2018 when his current employer, a medium-sized Vermont dairy, joined Milk with Dignity, a program that sets worker-developed standards for wages, safety, housing, and scheduling, among other things.

Now, the 30-year-old works alongside a few other hired workers. He is paid more, his schedule is stable, he has a full day off every week, and he can take paid time off when he’s sick. The whole feeling of work is different now, he said. He feels safe, comfortable, and supported.

“Beforehand, they didn’t care about the conditions; you just had to get the work done however you could. There was nobody checking to see if you could do it safely,” Efrain said through a translator. “Now, it’s very different. They have to give you protective equipment, and if there’s not, you speak up and they provide it. They take measures to make sure we can work safely.”

“I think the COVID crisis exposed the intense fragility of this industry. It started people asking how efficient is too efficient? At what point does efficiency become violence?”

This is a bright spot. In animal agriculture, where a budget rider exempts 96 percent of the operations that hire workers from federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) protections, innovative programs like Milk with Dignity—as well as a few states’ efforts to pass worker-centered legislation—are signaling that change is possible. They’re also proving it can be affordable for farms, too.

While advocates have pushed to improve federal protections for years with only limited success, those worker-driven programs, as well as state-level innovations, have blanketed the nation in a patchwork of fixes. Even as federal changes lag behind, smaller-scale efforts are gaining momentum.

“I think the COVID crisis exposed the intense fragility of this industry,” said Alex Blanchette, a professor of anthropology at Tufts University who worked in pork production to write the book Porkopolis. “It started people asking how efficient is too efficient? At what point does efficiency become violence?”

A Worker-Developed Standard

After years of pursuing protections for dairy workers in Vermont and New York, the immigrant-led organization Migrant Justice created Milk with Dignity, taking inspiration from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), the tomato pickers from south-central Florida who developed the worker-driven Fair Food Program.

Through Milk with Dignity, dairy farms can receive a premium for milk in exchange for complying with a code of conduct developed by workers. The Milk with Dignity Standards Council (MDSC) monitors compliance, audits dairies annually, and leads corrective action when needed. If working conditions aren’t up to standard—workers can report concerns without fear of retaliation.

“This really takes that extreme power imbalance, upends it, and says to corporations, ‘The workers in your supply chain are now your business partners.’”

Ben & Jerry’s became the first buyer to sign on to Milk with Dignity in 2014 after three years of negotiation and campaigning by workers, signaling the impact that corporate buy-in to worker initiatives can have. By last year, 51 dairy farms in Vermont and New York employed more than 200 workers to cover 100 percent of Ben & Jerry’s northeast dairy supply chain—all protected by Milk with Dignity standards.

Participating farms are required to collaborate with workers on developing site-specific health and safety processes. Those include practices around maintaining and operating heavy machinery, avoiding repetitive stress and musculoskeletal disorders, handling needles and chemicals, managing animals, ensuring proper ventilation, weathering extreme temperatures, communicating during emergencies, and accessing safety data sheets. Additionally, farms are required to offer new employees paid training and provide them with personal protective equipment.

“This really takes that extreme power imbalance, upends it, and says to corporations, ‘The workers in your supply chain are now your business partners—you’re signing a contract with them, where in essence, you are ceding power to them to determine the conditions in the supply chain,’” said Will Lambek of Migrant Justice.

A farmworker education session led by Migrant Justice. (Photo courtesy of Migrant Justice)

A farmworker education session led by Migrant Justice. (Photo courtesy of Migrant Justice)

Tom Fritzsche, the MDSC executive director, noted that almost none of the farmers in the program had ever had their working conditions monitored before. “It can be uncomfortable to welcome an inspection and interviews with employees when that type of thing hasn’t happened before,” he said.

The result has been big improvements. Since 2019, the program has conducted hundreds of education sessions and farm audits and developed 1,340 corrective action plans—all of which were agreed to by farmers. The 24/7 worker support line has also received more than a thousand inquiries from farmers and workers.

Efrain feels fortunate to have landed at a farm where the human rights-focused program sets the standard. He no longer works 16-hour shifts, sleeps on the floor, or works for a supervisor who drinks and is difficult, like one of his first jobs. Now he is paid $875 a week, about double a prior wage. And where before, “There was no rest,” he’s now guaranteed a full day off every week.

State-Level Innovation

Many experts see the removal of the OSHA budget rider as key to protecting workers in animal agriculture from both short- and long-term dangers. But they aren’t optimistic its elimination will come soon.

“You have to have the political will to bring these CAFOs [Confined Animal Feeding Operations] under regulatory oversight,” said Robert Martin of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

In the absence of federal change, it isn’t just programs like Milk with Dignity that serve as models for innovation. Some states are also testing ideas and retooling worker safety protections—and showing what is possible. “Federal labor standards are abysmal in a lot of ways, but we do see more promise with states kind of leading the charge to improve conditions for workers,” said Jessica Maxwell, the executive director of the Workers’ Center of New York.

“You have to have the political will to bring these CAFOs under regulatory oversight.”

States can choose to adopt stricter standards than those set by the federal government, and some do.

Thirteen of the 22 states and territories that run their own State Plan OSHA offices—including California, Washington, Oregon, Kentucky, Maryland, and Puerto Rico—do not observe the federal “small farm” exemption created by the OSHA budget rider. Because they allow OSHA oversight of farm operations that employ 10 or fewer non-family employees, they’re able to more closely supervise animal-ag workers.

Additionally, 14 states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin—have passed legislation guaranteeing collective bargaining rights for farmworkers.

And some states—including California, Colorado, New York, Oregon, and Washington—have passed laws that give agricultural workers more protections than federal standards, addressing issues such as overtime pay, minimum wage, meal breaks, and rest periods.

In 2019, for example, New York passed the Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, which took effect in January 2020. It grants farm workers overtime pay after 60 hours, a full day of rest each week, and disability and Paid Family Leave coverage, as well as unemployment benefits and other labor protections.

“We hear from workers all the time who used to work seven days a week who now do get that day off, that day of rest,” Maxwell said. And while the Workers’ Center still hears about workarounds—like farmers paying their workers in cash once they get over 60 hours to avoid the increased wage—she said, “in general, it’s had a big impact in terms of starting a shift. And that speaks again to why we need regulation, because that does start to create change on a bigger level.”

A dairy worker pours milk for a young calf. Photo credit: Vera Chang

Photo credit: Vera Chang

Two states have also expanded OSHA’s powers through Local Emphasis Programs that extend OSHA’s authority in industry-specific ways. The programs began addressing worker safety in dairies beyond the federal standard in Wisconsin in 2011 and in New York in 2014. Both allow the agency to make random, unannounced compliance inspections. A study found they raised producers’ awareness of the workplace hazards and ways to mitigate them.

“We certainly heard from workers at the time that they were getting training that they’ve never gotten before, that they were getting equipment that they’ve never had before—whether it was more appropriate length gloves, or boots, or even something as simple as an eye washing station in case of exposure to chemicals,” said Maggie Gray, a political science professor at Adelphi University in New York who studies low-wage, immigrant agriculture workers. To increase worker safety, she said, “Other states could also push for Local Emphasis Programs.”

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A Culture of Safety—What Farmers Say Has Worked

As individual states enact worker protections, industry pushback often follows. “What you hear all the time is ‘You can’t do it, you’re going to kill the industry,’” said Maxwell of increased worker protections. But that isn’t true, she said.

For example, while the U.S. Farm Bureau Federation and other industry players said lowering the overtime threshold in New York to 40 hours would devastate the industry, California’s success in implementing a similar threshold reduction proved the opposite.

In a round of hearings in New York in January, California’s success “allowed us to make the argument of, ‘Look, the agricultural industry did not collapse. We don’t see a huge shuttering of farms; we haven’t seen a big layoff of workers,’” she said. “States moving on worker protection allows other states to show proof that the industry will not collapse when you provide worker protection like the ag lobby says it will.”

Farmers and workers inside the Milk with Dignity program provide key insights into why worker-centered changes have worked.

Matt Maxwell, who operates Maxwell’s Neighborhood Farm, a third-generation dairy in Newport, Vermont, enrolled his operation in the Milk with Dignity program as soon as it was offered in 2018.

Before joining, the farm treated its workers well, he said. But he reported in the program’s first biennial report in 2020 that in adhering to the industry standard, the farm had unintentionally paid low wages and offered substandard housing. Milk with Dignity positioned the farm to increase its wages—and improved “both the business and employee sides of the operation,” he said.

“Since joining Milk with Dignity, our farm has maintained an 85 percent employee retention rate,” Maxwell noted in the report. “Less turnover has led to higher morale and greater workplace continuity.”

A worker milking cows while wearing a Milk with Dignity sweatshirt. (Photo courtesy of Migrant Justice)

Photo courtesy of Migrant Justice.

He said the program also enabled his farm to make huge strides in communication with its employees. “Where before we may have had a company-wide meeting once a month, now they are held weekly,” Maxwell said. “The increased interaction has been a benefit to us both. Problems are identified earlier and corrections made where necessary.” In addition to more open lines of communication, “everyone has a job description and has been trained on safety and procedural protocols.”

Clement Gervais of the large, three-generation Gervais Family Farm in Franklin County, Vermont said the program helped his farm respond to COVID and better address safety issues, according to the 2022 Milk with Dignity report. In addition to coordinating employee vaccinations during the COVID outbreak, Milk with Dignity also helped create safety protocols, bilingual safety posters, and pamphlets for new employees.

Like the Maxwell farm, the Gervais farm credits Milk with Dignity for improving its communication with workers. “That can be bridging the language barrier, or helping both sides negotiate conflicts if they arise,” Gervais said in the report. Overall, “Milk with Dignity has been a very positive program helping immigrant workers on my farm.”

For workers, the energy at dairies just feels different in the Milk with Dignity program.

“The bosses have more trust in our work; they aren’t always looking over our shoulders,” Efrain said. “I don’t know exactly what the Milk with Dignity people told them, but it’s really changed their mindset, whatever it is,” he said. “Now, I feel freer, I feel calmer, I feel safer at work.”

Efrain explained the improved safety response. On a snowy morning before the Milk with Dignity program existed, he was leading cows in from a corral to be milked when he slipped on the icy steps of the milking parlor. “I didn’t feel anything other than the pain when I landed, just excruciating pain on my left side,” he said. He let his bosses know about his fall, he said, “but they didn’t really care.”

Because there was no one else to fill in for him, Efrain felt he had no other option but to continue milking the cows. “To be honest, at that time, we all worked with the fear that if you couldn’t do your work, you would just get fired,” he said.

“I couldn’t bend over, and I couldn’t turn to one side or the other,” he said. For the next month, he worked in a back brace—and finally started feeling some relief when a man came to his house to adjust his spine.

When a broken metal gate fell on his foot at his current workplace, however, he was able to tend to his injury. His employer provided a first aid kit—and then paid time off to recover.

“The protocols farms follow aren’t not cheap or easy, but farms are able to afford the changes through premiums paid on the milk.”

Still, getting animal-agriculture companies to sign onto worker-safety programs has proven difficult, because human rights often fall at the bottom of companies’ priority lists. “We see focus on organic and environmental practices,” Jessica Maxwell said, “and workers’ rights have really lagged in terms of getting the attention that it deserves in sustainable agriculture.

“Even Ben and Jerry’s, which is a progressive company, it’s not like they went out and created or supported a version of this program—workers did it,” she said. “We see it over and over again, that corporations consistently resist this sort of change.”

Milk with Dignity is currently applying similar pressure to Hannaford Supermarkets to get the New England and New York grocery chain to sign onto the program for its store-brand milk. Although companies resist, the program has proven that farms are capable of complying with regulations when forced to, said Fritzsche of the MDSC.

“The protocols that farms follow as a consumer protection measure are strict. They’re not cheap or easy to follow,” he said, adding the premiums farms receive through the program help them afford the changes.

Changes at the Federal Level

A concern among worker advocates about the state-centered approach is that it doesn’t reach workers in less progressive states. “At some point, we need that to shift to a federal level,” Jessica Maxwell said.

Though most experts are also not optimistic that federal change will come soon, Martin of the Center for a Livable Future said the Biden administration’s approach to monopolies—including those that control the meat and poultry industries and promote an anti-regulatory agenda—is encouraging.

“The source of most of the dysfunction in the animal ag industry is the concentrated economic and political power of the companies,” he said. “So, when Joe Biden says he’s going to look at antitrust and price fixing of the companies, that’s a good thing to do.”

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Martin believes there OSHA should meanwhile step up inspections and enforcement to make sure existing rules are followed until additional legislation to protect workers can be passed. This includes providing training and instructions for personal protective equipment in the languages that workers actually speak, not just in English, he said.

“I don’t think any state is allocating enough financial and human resources to CAFO oversight,” Martin said. “It’s an across-the-board lack of oversight of these operations . . . [resulting in] a mistreatment of workers and the broader community.”

A 2020 report on the agency in the American Journal of Public Health suggested OSHA can also benefit from more standards-writing staff and a nimbler process by which to update its health and safety standards. Many OSHA safety standards, created in the 1970s, don’t reflect the present, industrial conditions of animal agriculture. For example, 90 percent of the chemical exposure limits don’t account for the majority of the chemicals in the present-day workplace.

Building Momentum, Pushing Forward

Jessica Maxwell stressed that for improved regulations to be meaningful, however, the animal-agriculture industry needs to overhaul—and slow down—the way it operates, putting less emphasis on peak speed and efficiency. “Some of the ways we do our agriculture have become so unsustainable that it’s like we’re putting Band-Aids on,” she said. “We need more systemic change.”

Dr. Athena Ramos, a professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and principal author of a 2018 study of swine confinement workers in Missouri, hopes that as systemic changes take hold, researchers can collaborate with willing producers to fine-tune solutions to safety issues, including workers’ chronic respiratory problems.

Ramos and her collaborators recommend baseline health screening to assess respiratory health as people are hired, for example, so that workers could be assigned to job sites that don’t exacerbate preexisting health conditions, she said. Follow-up screenings throughout a worker’s tenure can help detect changes in health and further inform assignments.

At right, Efrain, with his brother Ervin (at left), who works at the same dairy. Also pictured are Ervin's wife and daughter.

At right, Efrain, with his brother Ervin (at left), who works at the same dairy. Also pictured are Ervin’s wife and daughter.

She also proposed farms conduct regular safety audits to check whether workers are using available personal protective equipment and donning it properly. And safety training—or safety messaging—should be offered throughout a worker’s tenure, in their primary language, by a qualified and trained professional—not just someone who happens to speak the language.

“It’s about developing a culture of safety where worker health is prioritized at the same level as the animal health and well-being,” Ramos said. “Contract growers face tremendous pressures. But we’ve got to find a way that we can balance the productivity and the bottom line with worker health and safety.”

For now, workers like Efrain take solace in their gains. Since the Milk with Dignity program increased his pay and days off, Efrain has been able to start enjoying his life more. His brother Ervin got a job at the same dairy a few years after he did, and Ervin’s wife was able to join him. The two recently had their first child.

“Vermont has been a beautiful place to live, and every year has been different and new,” Efrain said. In the spring, “all the wildflowers come out, and you’re surrounded by flowers. It’s a very happy and pleasant area.”

He recently bought a car and can now leave the farm with friends to play soccer. “I feel comfortable here,” he said. “I feel comfortable with the changes that have happened.”

As workers realize success—at the state and local levels, and through industry-focused programs—momentum builds. “Workers see that they’re able to make changes, and then able to benefit from those changes,” Maxwell said. “And that creates momentum and empowerment to continue pushing forward and doing more.”

“I feel comfortable here,” he said. “I feel comfortable with the changes that have happened.”

Such worker empowerment is one of the most important levers for creating change, she said. “The most protected worker is an informed and educated worker who feels like they have the support to speak out and advocate for themselves,” said Maxwell.

Another key is educating lawmakers—and consumers—about the conditions under which animal agriculture workers work. Changes come from people caring about the treatment of the workers behind their food and applying pressure to elected officials, according to Martin.

“Politicians see the light when they begin to feel the heat,” he said, and, in this case, “the heat comes from political activity and organization.”

Read the entire series hereour methodology here, and check back here for our follow-up reporting.

Gosia Wozniacka contributed reporting to this story.

Christina Cooke is Civil Eats' associate editor. Based in North Carolina, she has also covered people, place, science, business, and culture for venues including The New Yorker, The New York Times, TheAtlantic.com, The Guardian, Oxford American, and High Country News. In the past, she has worked as a staff writer for the Chattanooga Times Free Press in Tennessee and a weekly paper in Portland, Oregon. A graduate of the documentary writing program at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies and the creative nonfiction writing MFA program at Portland State University, she teaches interviewing and nonfiction writing at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. Find out more at www.christinacooke.com. Read more >

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