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.
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.
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.
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.