Farm work has long been among the most dangerous occupations in the United States, as workers are vulnerable to workplace accidents, heat stress, and chemical exposure. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic brought new health and safety concerns to an essential workforce whose labor secures the country’s food supply.“We set out to examine the effects of the Covid-19 crisis on migrant farmworkers and to identify strategies that can meaningfully support worker well-being.”
Migrant farmworkers, in particular, are at increased risk of illness because many live in shared housing and labor in crews that work in close proximity. Furthermore, legal status exacerbates risks, as workers may avoid seeking care for fear of a run-in with immigration authorities. Language barriers and obstacles such as a lack of transportation also increase this population’s vulnerability. Though numbers vary, one study estimates that 27,223 migrant farmworkers have fallen ill since the pandemic and 459 have died.1Jayson L. Lusk and Ranveer Chandra, “Farmer and Farm Worker Illnesses and Deaths from COVID-19 and Impacts on Agricultural Output,” Plos One 16, no. 4 (2021). We set out to examine the effects of the Covid-19 crisis on migrant farmworkers and to identify strategies that can meaningfully support worker well-being. We were particularly interested in assessing what role worker advocacy and other grassroots organizations might play in a context where government labor regulation is generally weak, with minimal federal and state enforcement.
Vermont’s dairy industry
Our study focused on the dairy industry in Vermont. While dairy has long been Vermont’s leading agricultural product, the demographics of the workforce supporting this industry have changed over the past 30 years, with a growing number of employees coming from Mexico and Central America.
Dairy farms provide year-round employment for migrant farmworkers, most of whom are employed as milkers. For this reason, some consider milking jobs preferable to seasonal work like harvesting. Moreover, most farm operators provide on-site housing for migrant workers, typically in trailers, which minimizes workers’ expenses and allows them to save or remit more of their earnings. This residential situation also benefits farm operators. Because dairy cows are milked two or three times in a 24-hour period, farmers want a constant supply of labor near the milking barn.
Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, we had been studying migrant labor in agricultural supply chains. In particular, we were interested in understanding the emergence of a new wave of organizing in farmworker communities that focuses on developing worker-driven monitoring initiatives as an alternative to the kind of supply chain auditing that many companies carry out as part of corporate social responsibility programs. When the risks that the pandemic posed to agricultural workers became clear, we decided to expand our research to examine Covid-19’s effects on migrant laborers. We wanted to understand the challenges the pandemic posed for workers on Vermont dairy farms, how they were responding to these challenges, and how, if at all, their experiences were shaped by the region’s recent history of organizing the migrant farmworker community.
Our research included interviews with farmers, state officials and regulators, industry associations, and civil society groups. We also conducted a survey of 104 farmworkers. The survey was administered online, as well as in-person during a soccer tournament outside Burlington in summer 2021 where migrant dairy workers from multiple farms competed. We asked workers about changes to their work schedules, work practices, and compensation since Covid, their most significant Covid-related worries, their access to protective equipment and testing, and the types and sources of information, if any, that workers had received about Covid.
Findings“While farmworkers across the country have struggled with Covid-19, our data suggest that dairy workers in Vermont have fared comparatively well.”
While farmworkers across the country have struggled with Covid-19, our data suggest that dairy workers in Vermont have fared comparatively well. Of the 104 workers who completed our survey, 83 percent reported not knowing anyone (including themselves) who had contracted Covid-19. Public health officials confirmed the low incidence of Covid in the sector, noting that while there was a significant outbreak among H-2A workers harvesting apples at a local orchard in October 2020, there had been only one presumptive case on a dairy farm by year’s end. That changed in early 2021: Between January and March, there was a cluster of cases, with workers on approximately 20 dairy farms infected. There were no additional infections recorded on dairy farms between April and July 2021, when our data collection ended (prior to the emergence of the Delta variant). Throughout this period, hospitalization rates were low and there were no reported deaths among the migrant farmworker community in Vermont.
Perhaps more remarkably, at a time when farmworkers in other areas of the country struggled to access vaccines, nonprofit health organizations in Vermont estimated that they had vaccinated approximately 95 percent of the farmworker community by summer 2021. To be sure, Vermont has had one of the country’s most impressive vaccine rollouts overall, with 86.2 percent of the population age 12+ having received at least one shot as of August 15, 2021. Yet what is striking about the vaccination effort in Vermont is that Hispanic adults—the group to which most dairy workers belong—had the highest vaccination rates among all racial and ethnic groups.2Nationwide, initial disparities in vaccination gaps by race have narrowed over the course of the pandemic, and as of November 2021, the percentage of Hispanic Americans over the age of 12 who have received at least one shot was slightly higher than that of white Americans (66 percent to 63 percent), though overall Asian Americans have the highest rates of vaccination. According to CDC data, Vermont has the largest disparity in vaccination rates between whites and Hispanics, reflecting the extremely high vaccination rate among the latter. The next closest state is Missouri, where the gap is driven by relatively low rates among whites (45 percent) as opposed to high rates among Hispanics (62 percent). Two-thirds of the state’s dairy farms are located in three counties: Addison, Franklin, and Orleans. In these counties, vaccination rates among Hispanics were 95 percent, 94 percent, and 95 percent, respectively, as of mid-August 2021. The corresponding percentages for non-Hispanic whites in the same counties were 80 percent, 74 percent, and 70 percent, respectively.
What explains these outcomes, particularly given the substantial structural barriers that migrant farmworkers face? The most significant factor enabling a comparatively rapid and effective response to Covid-19 in Vermont’s dairy sector was the existence of pre-existing relationships that connected migrant farmworkers to critical resources. These relationships grew out of increased organizing focused on the needs of the migrant farmworker community.
Worker-driven monitoring: Creating meaningful health and safety protections for migrant farmworkers
In Vermont, most migrant workers live and labor on farms in rural areas; the geographic and social isolation they experience is exacerbated by their immigration status, particularly as many farms are located in relative proximity to the Canadian border where the Border Patrol is increasingly active. Some activists in Vermont began organizing over a decade ago, with the goal of making more visible the challenges facing the migrant worker community. The group now known as Migrant Justice grew out of ad hoc efforts to repatriate the body of a young worker from Mexico who died in an accident on a dairy farm. In the aftermath of the tragedy, members began looking for ways to avoid preventable deaths and improve living and working conditions on farms.
Inspired by the Campaign for Fair Food waged by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Migrant Justice decided to emulate the Fair Food Program’s model of worker-led monitoring, which differs from conventional supply chain auditing by involving workers as active participants in the process of setting and monitoring compliance with standards. After convening meetings where migrant workers shared their experiences and concerns, Migrant Justice drafted a set of proposed standards called the Milk with Dignity Code of Conduct. It addressed issues such as health and safety, living conditions, wages, and working hours on dairy farms.“The organization crafted a campaign to pressure the buyers of Vermont dairy products (rather than the farmers themselves) to support the Code.”
Migrant Justice recognized that some farmers, already struggling under the pressure of industry consolidation, might have trouble meeting these new standards. So, the organization crafted a campaign to pressure the buyers of Vermont dairy products (rather than the farmers themselves) to support the Code. It chose Ben & Jerry’s—a Vermont-based brand with a reputation for progressive politics—as its first target. The campaign succeeded, and after protracted discussions with Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company, Unilever, the Milk with Dignity Program got underway in 2018. Under the program, Ben and Jerry’s agreed to pay a premium to farmers that are either complying with the Milk with Dignity Code or making verifiable progress toward compliance. The premium is a critical feature of the program, which recognizes the costs farmers incur in providing improved working and living conditions to employees.
At the time of our research in Vermont, over 60 dairy farms were participating in the Milk with Dignity Program, all of which are monitored by the Milk with Dignity Standards Council, a third-party monitoring organization.3At the time of our research, about 10 percent of the state’s dairy farms were participating in the Milk with Dignity program. However, the share of employment and output that these farms account for is greater than 10 percent, since large farms are overrepresented among the program’s members. The Council’s staff conducts yearly audits of participating farms and fields calls from farmworkers on a 24-hour bilingual hotline. Fully independent from both the farms and Ben and Jerry’s, they make the final determination regarding compliance with the program’s standards. Farms with serious or persistent violations are suspended from the program and lose access to the premium.
Our survey respondents included migrant farmworkers on farms that participated in Milk with Dignity as well as those that did not. We asked workers if they knew whether their farm participated in any labor standards initiatives. We inquired specifically about the Milk with Dignity Program as well as an alternative program designed and popularized by the main dairy industry association.
The contrast in worker awareness of these two programs is striking: only 8 percent of respondents indicated that they knew their farm participated in a monitoring program other than Milk with Dignity, while 70 percent of workers said that they “didn’t know.” When asked whether their farm participated in Milk with Dignity, only 6 percent of respondents said that they were “not sure”; all other respondents (94 percent) indicated a definitive “yes” or “no.” This suggests that even on farms that are not participating in the program, workers are familiar with it.
One protection that workers are provided under the Milk with Dignity Program is paid sick days, and our data indicate that workers on participating farms are aware of this policy. As Tables 1 and 2 demonstrate, while workers at farms both in and outside the program reported similar levels of comfort with requesting lower-risk measures like a Covid test, a larger gap existed between workers on Milk with Dignity (MD) farms and non-participating farms (Non-MD) when the mitigation measures become more costly and onerous for employers, such as time off of work.
Finally, we asked workers where they were getting information about Covid mitigation measures. Almost three-fourths (74 percent) of workers identified Migrant Justice or staff members of the Milk with Dignity Standards Council as the source of this information. In contrast, only 25 percent reported receiving information from their employers (many of whom speak little to no Spanish). Prior research conducted on worker-centered monitoring initiatives suggests that they advance worker health and safety both by ensuring that workers are aware of the rights and protections they are entitled to under the program and by providing a mechanism to voice concerns without fear of retaliation.4See, for example, Janice Fine and Tim Bartley, “Raising the Floor: New Directions in Public and Private Enforcement of Labor Standards in the United States,” Journal of Industrial Relations 61, no. 1 (2019): 252–276, and Kelly Pike, “Voice in Supply Chains: Does the Better Work Program Lead to Improvements in Labor Standards Compliance?,” ILR Review 73, no. 4 (2020): 913–938. Our study suggests that this model also functions to promote worker well-being in the context of a public health crisis like Covid-19.
Effective public health outreach: Building relationships to overcome barriers
In Vermont, two organizations—Bridges to Health, affiliated with the University of Vermont extension program, and Open Door Clinic, a free clinic in Addison County—serve the healthcare needs of migrant farmworkers. The long-term presence of these organizations in worker communities made them well-positioned to respond to challenges posed by Covid, including by providing educational outreach about the disease. Among the workers we surveyed, 55 percent reported that one (or both) of these clinics were a source of information during the pandemic.
Bridges to Health and Open Door Clinic are largely grant-dependent organizations that operate with a small staff and a handful of volunteers. They are nimble, known to the migrant farmworker community, and have cultural and linguistic competencies that better-resourced organizations lack. Prior to the pandemic, both had been conducting flu vaccination clinics on dairy farms and they were able to draw on that experience, pivoting to Covid vaccination clinics when shots became available.
Because dairy work involves long hours, shift work, and irregular schedules, getting everyone on a farm vaccinated can be logistically complicated. As one staff member explained, “We went back to some farms multiple times; one of our doctors went to someone’s bedroom where they were sleeping to give them a shot. Maybe they were just too tired to get up because they had just gotten off work. There was a great effort to get shots in people’s arms.” Importantly, on-farm testing and vaccination clinics were not restricted to migrant farmworkers; farmers and their family members, as well as any non-migrant workers, were also eligible. Just as these organizations have developed a relationship with migrant farmworkers over time, so too have they established a degree of trust with the farmers whose employees are their main constituency.
Our research focused on what might be considered “a most likely” case for the successful management of Covid-19 among migrant workers. Compared with their counterparts harvesting row crops—who typically work in large crews, travel to and from the fields each day on crowded buses, and move en masse to different locations throughout the growing season—migrant workers on dairy farms are at lower risk of contracting Covid-19. Nevertheless, many dairy farm employees share tight quarters in communal housing and work in conditions in which social distancing is difficult. And while it is true that Vermont’s overall response to the pandemic has been impressive, migrant farmworkers often confront barriers to accessing care not experienced by other populations.5See, for example, Thomas A. Arcury and Sara A. Quandt, “Delivery of Health Services to Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers,” Annual Review of Public Health 28 (2007): 345–63. There are still lessons to be learned, then, even if Vermont’s dairy farms differ in significant ways from the workplaces where most migrant laborers in US agriculture are employed.
Our findings suggest that an important factor contributing to the positive outcomes among migrant workers on Vermont dairy farms is the existence of a worker advocacy group that has been organizing a dispersed and largely invisible community. Migrant Justice’s efforts have been particularly impactful on farms participating in its worker-driven monitoring program, Milk with Dignity.
Migrant Justice is part of a larger ecology of civil society groups supporting migrant farmworkers in Vermont’s dairy industry. In many states, consolidation in the dairy industry is resulting in larger farms, which, in turn, drives increased demand for the additional workers needed to milk larger herds. Yet while the industry’s reliance on immigrant farmworkers is growing, the infrastructure to support farmworkers has not kept up with this transformation, leaving many without access to essential networks and vulnerable to a wide variety of challenges, including limited access to healthcare.6See, for example, Kathleen Sexsmith, “‘But We Can’t Call 911:’ Undocumented Immigrant Farmworkers and Access to Social Protection in New York,” Oxford Development Studies 45, no. 1 (2017): 96–111. See also Julie C. Keller, Margaret Gray, and Jill Lindsey Harrison, “Milking Workers, Breaking Bodies: Health Inequality in the Dairy Industry,” New Labor Forum 26, no. 1 (2017): 36–44.
Vermont has become the exception to this trend. Collaborations of the sort that occur between Migrant Justice, Bridges to Health, and the Open Door clinic enable groups to respond to a fast-changing public health situation. These pre-existing relationships, which connect groups to each other and to the farmworker community, represent a kind of civic infrastructure that could be activated to confront the novel challenges of the Covid pandemic.
Banner photo: “A vaccine station set up by Bridges to Health, a local public health organization, at a community soccer tournament for Vermont farmworkers, July 2021.” Photo by Authors.