Series: America’s Dairyland
Risking Workers’ Lives for the Milk We Drink
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State and local officials in Wisconsin said they were horrified to learn of the conditions leading up to the 2019 death of an 8-year-old Nicaraguan boy on a dairy farm, as well as the flawed law enforcement investigation that followed. Now they say they want to address some of the issues highlighted by a ProPublica investigation, published last month, into Jefferson Rodríguez’s death.
“What happened should never have happened,” said state Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez, a Milwaukee Democrat whose mother’s family worked as migrant farm laborers in Wisconsin in the 1960s.
Jefferson was run over late one summer night in 2019 by a worker operating a skid steer on a farm in rural Dane County, about a half-hour north of Madison, the state capital. It was the worker’s first day on the job, and he told us that he had received only a few hours of training. Our investigation showed how the authorities who investigated Jefferson’s death wrongly concluded that his father had run him over.
The failure was due in large part to a language barrier between the boy’s father, José María Rodríguez Uriarte, and the Dane County sheriff’s deputy who interviewed him. Rodríguez does not speak English; the deputy considered herself proficient in Spanish, but not fluent. When we interviewed the deputy, we learned that when she questioned Rodríguez in Spanish about what happened, her words didn’t mean what she thought and would likely be confusing to a Spanish speaker.
Jefferson’s death was ruled an accident. Nobody was charged criminally.
“Proficiency in a crisis isn’t good enough,” said Dana Pellebon, who sits on the Dane County Board of Supervisors. “Unfortunately, until a situation like this happens, sometimes we don’t see the gaps in service.”
Pellebon and several other supervisors told ProPublica they were looking into measures that could improve language access for non-English speakers who interact with the sheriff’s office. According to estimates from the U.S. census, more than 10% of Dane County residents speak a language other than English at home.
“This theme of language barriers for people to exercise and enforce their rights — from law enforcement to human services to our court system — it is widespread,” said county Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner. “There really needs to be a thorough examination countywide into these barriers, because it’s not fair.”
The Board of Supervisors sets the budget for and can make recommendations to the sheriff’s office. But it is limited in its ability to set policy.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office said the agency has a skilled and diverse staff that’s equipped with the tools it needs, including “unfettered access” to language translation services. The department “is always looking for ways to improve the services provided to the community which include the evaluation of current practices and consideration [of] received recommendations,” the spokesperson said.
At the state level, Ortiz-Velez pointed to a bill that would allow DACA recipients to become police officers or sheriff’s deputies. (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is a federal program that gives some undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children temporary protections from deportation.) Currently, only U.S. citizens can work as police officers or sheriff’s deputies in Wisconsin. “For us to have officers that are fluent, that were born in other countries and can speak the language, I think that could be a great help,” Ortiz-Velez said.
Our story on Jefferson’s death is the first in our series, America’s Dairyland, that intends to explore work, housing and other conditions for immigrant dairy workers in Wisconsin and across the Midwest. Here are three takeaways from our reporting efforts so far:
1. Across Wisconsin, law enforcement officials face language barriers when responding to incidents on dairy farms.
Under the Civil Rights Act, agencies that receive federal funding are required to ensure that their services are accessible to people who speak limited English. The Department of Justice, which drafted guidelines for law enforcement agencies on this issue nearly two decades ago, occasionally investigates departments that fail to meet this requirement.
Last year, we began requesting records of law enforcement agencies’ responses to incidents ranging from work-related injuries to assaults on dairy farms across Wisconsin. What those records show us is that officials routinely encounter language barriers when interacting with dairy workers. Frequently they rely on farm supervisors or employees to serve as interpreters; sometimes they turn to Google Translate or to children.
The Dane County Sheriff’s Office has no written policy about how deputies should respond to incidents involving people who do not speak English, or on when to bring in an interpreter. The department does not assess the language skills of employees, who instead self-report their proficiency. But as a general practice, department officials have said, when deputies need to communicate with residents who speak a language other than English, they are supposed to put out a call to ask if any of their colleagues speak that language and, if none are available, ask for help from other nearby agencies.
2. It is an open secret that Wisconsin’s dairy industry relies on undocumented immigrant labor.
Because workers are undocumented, they often have a harder time speaking up about unfair or unsafe conditions.
Rodríguez and his son immigrated to the U.S. from Nicaragua in early 2019 in search of economic opportunity. As an asylum-seeker, Rodríguez did not have a work permit. He used fake papers to get a job at D&K Dairy. (In a deposition, the farm’s owner said he was not aware of Rodríguez’s citizenship status.)
Rodríguez earned $9.50 an hour and, like other workers, routinely worked 70 to 80 hours a week. Agricultural work is excluded from many of America’s labor protections, so there was no overtime pay for working more than 40 hours. Like many Wisconsin dairy farms, D&K Dairy provided free housing. But the housing Rodríguez and his son used was not in a house; they lived in an apartment above the milking parlor, the barn where hundreds of cows were brought day and night to be milked by heavy, loud machinery.
For years the dairy industry, complaining of labor shortages, has lobbied unsuccessfully to access the federal H-2A guest worker program, which allows employers to temporarily bring in foreign employees when they can’t find local workers. Currently, the program is limited to seasonal agricultural work; dairy is a year-round job.
Critics say the guest-worker program lends itself to abuse and exploitation, as immigrants’ ability to remain in the U.S. is tied to a single employer, which has led to several high-profile cases of forced labor, wage theft, substandard housing and high recruitment fees, among other problems.
3. Small farms don’t always get a safety inspection after a death or injury.
When Jefferson died, an investigator with the Dane County Medical Examiner’s Office alerted the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is responsible for workplace safety. But OSHA did not investigate because the boy was not a farm employee.
Even when workers die or are injured on small farms, OSHA is limited in its ability to respond. Farms with fewer than 11 workers are often exempt from oversight. (Some states with their own OSHA plans do more, but Wisconsin isn’t one of them.) And the federal agency has few safety standards for agricultural work sites.
In recent years, OSHA has attempted to inspect fewer than a dozen of the thousands of dairy farms in Wisconsin each year. The year Jefferson died, six of the nine inspections that OSHA initiated ultimately were not done because the farms were too small to fall under the agency’s jurisdiction; three of those six involved fatalities.
“Dairy operations these days are big factories, basically,” said Michael Engelberger, a Dane County supervisor. “They should not be exempt from any OSHA regulations or special agriculture labor laws. To me that’s just wrong.”
Wegleitner said she hopes to convene a group of supervisors, community advocates, county staff and others to talk about next steps in the coming weeks.
“Language access is one piece,” she said. “We have unsafe housing, lack of inspections and oversight, and all those things may not be things the county can legislate. But if we are talking to and advocating with state and federal policymakers and groups and working in coalition, I think this needs to be addressed on multiple levels.”
We plan to keep reporting on issues affecting immigrant dairy workers across the Midwest. Among those issues: traffic stops of undocumented immigrants who drive without a license; access to medical care or workers’ compensation after injuries on the job; and employer-provided housing.
Do you have ideas or tips for us to look into? Please reach out using this form.
And if you know a Spanish speaker who might be interested in this topic, please share with them a translated version of the story about Jefferson’s death — which also includes an audio version — or this note about how to get in touch with us.
Aquí está nuestra investigación — y una versión en audio — en español, así como una carta explicando cómo usted se puede comunicar con nosotros si quiere compartir información sobre la industria lechera de Wisconsin y estados cercanos.