December 2, 2014 Kim Krisberg 0Comment

“Cows don’t know holidays,” says Alfredo Gomez, a 56-year-old dairy worker in southeastern New Mexico. “Here, there’s no Christmas.”

That’s an opening quote from Joseph Sorrentino’s article on the conditions dairy farm workers face in New Mexico, where he reports that milk production topped $1.5 billion last year and the industry employs thousands of workers. Published yesterday in In These Times, the article chronicles the dangerous conditions that farm workers face as well as the lives of dairy farm animals. Sorrentino reports:

“There’s no training — you just start working,” says Gustavo Varela, who, along with his brother José, were the only two workers willing to have their real names used. Gustavo worked at dairies for 10 years, feeding calves. Angelica Rosario, one of the very few female dairy workers, worked as a milker for a year and a half and agrees with Varela. “You just watch other people” to learn the job, she says.

The lack of training endangers not only cows, but also workers. Working with large animals poses a real risk of injury. In 2012, (Tess) Wilkes was part of a team at the (New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty) that interviewed about 60 workers from various dairies in the state. Almost 80 percent of the workers said they had never received any safety training.

Most of the cows are docile, but not all. “The younger ones are dangerous,” says Antonio Jiménez, who worked in a dairy outside of Roswell during high school. “They don’t know how to be milked and [they] kick. Sometimes the ones that have just given birth [are dangerous], too.” The NMCLP survey found that 53 percent of the workers interviewed had been injured on the job, often more than once, and sometimes seriously.

Sorrentino reports that New Mexico has long exempted dairies and farms from having to insure people working directly with animals, though a 2011 lawsuit found that exemption unconstitutional. Still, an appeal from the state’s Workers’ Compensation Administration has the decision in limbo. In addition, dairy farm owners aren’t required to give workers breaks. Sorrentino writes: “Although some workers say they get a lunch break — ranging from 30 minutes to just 5 — the majority say they get no breaks.” He goes on to write:

Workers in New Mexico’s dairy regions don’t have many options for work. In the southeast, it’s the dairies or the oil fields, which pay better but are more dangerous and farther from workers’ homes. In the south central region, it’s dairies or farm work, which pays even less. So workers stay quiet and trudge in day after day, knowing how little they’re valued. Every worker interviewed for this article was asked if they believed dairy owners valued cows or workers more. Without hesitation, each answered, “Cows.”

To read the full article, visit In These Times. To read more about the lives of dairy farm workers, read our coverage of dairy farm workers who are organizing in upstate New York.

In other news:

Chicago Tribune: Today, Chicago’s City Council voted to raise the city’s minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2019 — the current statewide rate is $8.25. Reporter Hal Dardick writes that the city’s minimum wage workers will get their first increase next July, when the minimum wage will go up to $10 an hour. From there, the minimum wage will go up by 50 cents in July 2016, another 50 cents in July 2017, $1 in July 2018 and finally by another $1 in July 2019. However, Dardick quoted Katelyn Johnson, executive director of Action Now, a member of the Raise Chicago coalition, as saying: “Thirteen dollars is a good place to start, but it does leave out huge swaths of the population — hotel workers, domestic workers, tip workers. It’s a good place to start, a good first step, but we have to keep on fighting, we have to push for more so we have a fair wage for everyone.”

The New York Times: Writer Benjamin Mueller reports on the death of Delfino Jesus Velazquez Mendizabal, who died after becoming trapped under a collapsed mezzanine at a car dealership on Staten Island. At the time of the incident, the building’s interiors were being demolished by Formica Construction Inc., which Mueller reports has a history of documented workplace hazards. He writes: “One of the construction company’s owners, Kenneth Formica, pleaded guilty in 2007 to criminally negligent homicide in a case stemming from the death of a worker who was buried when a trench collapsed. Mr. Formica was sentenced to 16 weekends in jail after admitting he knew that the trench, which he helped dig, was unsafe, according to court documents.”

NIOSH Science Blog: Keeping in mind all the workers who made our Thanksgiving celebrations possible, NIOSH Science Blog writer Vern Putz-Anderson, coordinator of NIOSH’s Wholesale and Retail Trade Sector, reminds readers that the grocery store workers who lift and stock shelves with those tons of turkeys, stuffing and vegetables are at risk for serious musculoskeletal injuries. Anderson reports that nearly 2.5 million cashiers and stocking clerks are at risk for such injuries that stem from overexertion — injuries that account for 41 percent of injury and lost work in grocery stores. To prevent such injuries, Anderson pointed readers to NIOSH’s “Ergonomic Solutions for Retailers: Prevention of Material Handling Injuries in the Grocery Sector.”

Philadelphia Magazine: Philadelphia’s Task Force on Paid Sick Leave has issued an official recommendation to Mayor Michael Nutter that the city pass legislation requiring employers to offer paid sick leave to employees. Reporter Joel Mathis writes that therecommendation had been expected since Mayor Nutter reversed course over the summer — after vetoing two sick leave bills — and said he would support such a measure, pending a report from a task force on the topic.” Among its recommendations, the task force called for a policy that applies to businesses with 15 or more employees and that would allow workers to accrue one hour of sick leave for every 40 hours worked. The task force also recommended that businesses with fewer than 15 workers let those workers take unpaid sick leave without fear of losing their jobs.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

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