Dairy farms are some of the most dangerous job sites in America. Much of the labor is done by immigrants working on small farms that operate with little safety oversight.

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For most workers in Wisconsin who get hurt on the job, the state’s workers’ compensation system is there to cover medical expenses and pay a portion of their wages while they heal.

“One of the bedrock principles of worker’s compensation is universal coverage,” the state’s Department of Workforce Development, which oversees the workers’ compensation system, says on its website. “That means that virtually every employee is covered.”

But the law is different for farms, and many immigrant dairy workers — the backbone of one of the state’s most celebrated yet dangerous industries — don’t get this protection. Wisconsin exempts all kinds of farms with fewer than six employees not related to the owners from the requirement to have workers’ compensation coverage.

No state or federal agency appears to track how many of Wisconsin’s 5,700 or so dairy farms fall into that category — or how many workers go without coverage. Neither does the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, one of the state’s most powerful lobbying groups.

But the number of those farms is likely in the thousands since many employ only one or two workers. According to one national study, more than 23,000 agricultural workers in Wisconsin were exempt from workers’ compensation coverage in 2020; that’s a larger number of excluded agricultural workers than in almost every other state in the country.

The workers’ compensation exemption comes on top of limits on the federal government’s enforcement of occupational health and safety laws on these same small farms, which effectively leaves employers to police themselves.

It’s not just workers on small farms who go unprotected. Many injured workers on large farms said they are too afraid of retaliation from their employers to pursue claims. The problem is exacerbated by immigration status: Most immigrants who work on Wisconsin dairy farms are in the United States illegally and fear getting fired or deported.

“Workers’ compensation really doesn’t work for anyone, not even the workers it’s supposed to work for. It really doesn’t,” said Lola Loustaunau, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School for Workers who is studying access to workers’ compensation for immigrant workers in high-risk industries. “That gets increasingly worse the more precarious workers are.”

ProPublica reported this week on how immigrant dairy workers are frequently hurt on the job and often go without medical care. When their injuries are so severe that they can no longer work like they used to, they can get fired and thrown out of the housing many employers provide. Many are left with few legal options.

“The farm owner didn’t want to help me with anything,” said a 47-year-old man who was unable to work for several months this year after the muscles and tendons in his shoulder were ripped from the bones when a cow slammed him against a wall. “They don’t really see us as full humans.”

The man worked with two other workers on a farm that, according to state records, didn’t have workers’ compensation insurance. He said he went without medical care for months until the owner of Latino grocery store in the area put him in touch with a local nonprofit organization that helped him get hospital charity care.

In more than a dozen states, including New York, California and Idaho, farms with as few as one employee are required to have workers’ compensation insurance. Wisconsin’s exemption for small farms is one of many federal and state carve-outs that have historically left farm workers — and dairy workers in particular — with fewer rights and protections than others. Farm workers aren’t entitled to overtime pay, and they don’t have the right to form a union. Dairy farm housing is largely unregulated and uninspected. Workers’ deaths and injuries on small farms are almost never investigated by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as ProPublica has previously reported.

A Department of Workforce Development spokesperson said state law does not authorize its Worker’s Compensation Division to provide resources or programs to an injured worker whose employer is not required to have workers’ compensation insurance. “Division staff refer injured workers who contact the division with immediate needs to community-based organizations and other service providers,” the spokesperson said.

The Wisconsin Farm Bureau says in its annual policy book that it supports keeping the threshold for requiring workers’ compensation insurance at farms with six employees. In a statement, Amy Eckelberg, a spokesperson for the Farm Bureau, said farmers from across the state set the organization’s policy priorities.

“Our farmers use every means available to avoid injuries to their employees, family members and themselves through appropriate education, training and physical precautions to mitigate against known safety threats,” she said.

Over the course of the past year, ProPublica has interviewed more than 60 immigrant workers who said they were injured on Wisconsin farms. Workers on small and large farms repeatedly said their supervisors ignored their injuries.

Take the case of Luis, a Nicaraguan man who works on a farm in south-central Wisconsin that, according to state records, has workers’ compensation coverage. He said that one morning in January, a cow kicked his hand. “In that moment, I thought my hand was broken,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do about the pain.” Luis said he told his manager, who said, “It’s fine. Keep working,” and so he did.

Later that day, he stopped by a Latino grocery store to buy painkillers and bandages in the hopes of reducing the swelling. He knew his employer had workers’ compensation insurance, but he didn’t want to press the matter. “It’s better not to say anything,” he said. Luis never got medical care.

Many workers who did get medical treatment said their supervisors pressured them to tell hospital officials their injury wasn’t work-related. One former hospital employee said immigrant dairy workers who came into the emergency room would beg him not to note in their files that they were hurt at work. He said they didn’t want the hospital to call their employer to ask about workers’ compensation coverage; they were afraid their supervisors would get mad and fire them.

Some farms that are large enough to be required to carry workers’ compensation insurance don’t have it. One man whose face was bashed in by a bull last year said at least seven other people worked on the farm. But the farm didn’t have workers’ compensation coverage, according to state records.

More than a half-dozen workers said in interviews that workers’ compensation paid some or all of their medical bills and provided them partial pay as they recuperated. But their bodies are no longer the same.

Credit: Zeke Peña, special to ProPublica

“My right hand is fucked,” said an Ecuadorian man who lost two fingers and can’t use two others after his hand got caught in a piece of machinery in a milking parlor. “I can’t close my hand; it just stays open. It hurts when I try to use it a lot. And in the cold, the pain is unbearable.”

“I can’t run. I can’t walk more than a half hour. My leg falls asleep,” said a Nicaraguan man whose legs were crushed under a heavy metal gate two years ago. “The farm owner told me I’m lucky to be alive because even cows can be killed there.”

“I kept trying to work, but I couldn’t stand the pain,” said a Nicaraguan man who injured his spinal column when he slipped off a skid steer he was cleaning and fell on concrete. “They laughed at me, saying I was making up the pain, that I didn’t want to work.”

Workers who are injured on small farms that don’t have workers’ compensation insurance have only one legal recourse to compel their employers to pay their medical bills: take them to court. But few immigrant dairy workers do so.

“A lot of folks are afraid that somehow suing will affect their immigration status,” said Douglas Phebus, a lawyer who has represented workers on small dairy farms in personal injury cases. “The whole system is designed to burden these folks. It’s all stacked against them.”

Unlike workers’ compensation claims, for which a worker has to prove only that an injury happened in the course of work, the burden of proof is higher in personal injury lawsuits: Workers must show that their employers were negligent.

And it can be challenging to find an attorney — especially one who speaks Spanish — as well as the time to meet since workers routinely work 70 to 80 hours a week.

Kate McCoy, the occupational health and safety program director for the state’s Department of Health Services, said immigrant dairy workers are at an especially high risk of disability and death.

“From the public health standpoint, you never want to see a population that’s afraid to access medical care and is afraid to speak to health officials, and that’s one of the things we see with this population,” she said.

McCoy’s team is working with Loustaunau and other University of Wisconsin researchers to better understand the occupational health needs of workers in high-risk industries — including immigrant dairy workers — and the challenges they face when they seek workers’ compensation.

The group held its first listening session this month. Every worker who attended, including several dairy workers, said they had been fired after sustaining injuries. Several described how they came to see being hurt, and then getting insulted or humiliated by a supervisor, as part of the job, Loustaunau said. Many talked about depression and the toll injuries took on their families.

“We know that there are fantastic farmers and farm employers who go out of their way to take care of employees,” McCoy said. “But unfortunately the stories we heard last Friday night were [about] the folks that were not upholding what we would want.”

Health department officials hope to use what they learn from the listening sessions to provide workers information they need about occupational safety and the workers’ compensation system. They also plan to conduct sessions to help workers learn how to navigate the claims process.

Among the workers at the listening session was a man who said he was bullied, assaulted and threatened with deportation several years ago after falling more than 10 feet while trying to fix a barn curtain on a dairy farm. The man suffered a concussion, memory loss and damage to his spine, and he had to relearn how to walk and talk. He and his wife drove more than an hour in the snow to attend the session. In an interview with ProPublica, the man, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, said he wanted to share his experience because he doesn’t want that to happen to other dairy workers, especially new immigrants.

“We are not animals,” said the man, who asked to be identified by one of his surnames, Paredes, because he is afraid of retaliation from his former employer. “As human beings, we have rights.”

For several months, Paredes’ medical bills were covered by workers’ compensation, and he received partial pay during the time he was supposed to spend recovering.

But he said he still hadn’t been cleared by a doctor to return to work when the farm owner showed up to the house he provided to Paredes, his wife and four children. According to Paredes and his wife, the farm owner demanded that he return to work.

“Sometimes you don’t have another choice,” he said. “A lot of us don’t want to speak up.”

But Paredes couldn’t do the job anymore. His doctor eventually cleared him to work two hours a day, but the farm owner insisted he work longer shifts. The farm owner taunted him, Paredes said, calling him “cripple man” and “dumb,” and told him to “go back to your pueblo because you’re not good for anything.”

Eventually, Paredes felt he had no option but to quit. His wife got three jobs to make up for the lost income, including milking cows at another farm and cleaning a church. Paredes said he hasn’t been able to hold a regular job since the accident. He has thousands of dollars in medical debt for ongoing care that is no longer covered by workers’ compensation. He picks up odd jobs, such as cutting grass or painting houses, when he can. But when he does physical labor, he said he quickly feels intense pain in his spine. And he said his brain doesn’t work like it used to. He gets motion sickness and feels dizzy when he walks or drives.

“I feel useless,” he said. “Like I’m good for nothing.”

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