From Vermont to New York State, immigration has a world of problems, from language barriers to immigration reform and visa issues. Hispanic workers on dairy farms have made farms impactful, but there are still issues.

Language Barriers Among Employees and Employers

Vermont has a challenge of its own concerning Hispanic workers and dairy farms.

“Vermont is unique from other states because we’re working almost entirely with dairy farms,” said Erin Shea, who oversees both the Migrant Education Program and Bridges to Health Programs at the Vermont Migrant Education Program. “It has year round work and it falls under temporary employment. Dairy farming doesn’t qualify for seasonal employment under the government, either.”

Vermont started tapping into the Hispanic labor force about 10 years ago, according to Shea. “Rural Vermont is far behind, and if it isn’t an urgent issue with employees, then it’s not a priority simply because they have other fires burning,” she said.

“One of the biggest challenges then and now is language,” said Thomas R. Maloney, Senior Extension Associate at the Department of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. “Even though farm managers and workers have made a lot of strides in the area, we still have a fair number of workers who don’t speak English well or at all.”

According Shea, employers play a bigger role in supplying everything from basic necessities, healthcare, transportation, food shopping and play the role of landlord. However, basics like housing are often overlooked.

“It’s overlooked that employers aren’t going in the employee housing and they don’t know the condition of it,” Shea said. “Because of the language barrier, employees are less inclined to go to the employers and tell them.”

A broken immigration system is the root of the problem, Shea mentioned.

“It’s clear how dependent employees are on the employers, and it’s all very complex and understanding the language adds to all of this,” she said. “Employees are forced to play a larger role, and what many employers don’t know is that there a lot of resources for them like bilingual veterans and interpreters to help with the language. There are dozens of translation apps available for their smartphones, too.”

Language hasn’t been made a priority unless there’s an issue and then, they’re scrambling to figure the issues out, Shea added.

Maloney said the farm owners have four choices when there’s a language barrier. One, to do nothing and try to get along; two, workers learn English, the language of the business; three, the farm owner puts in place some kind of management Spanish speaking ability so they can speak with the employees; or four, to have an ongoing interpreter who comes on the farm on a regular basis to make sure the detailed complex information is translated effectively.

“We have a number of Spanish speaking, helpful vets available and in helping, they overcome the barrier,” he urged. “When you have a language barrier, you have to be proactive about solving the issue.”

Implementation of limited community-based participatory training programs and community health worker programs have shown to improve worker health and safety knowledge, according to T.A. Arcury, J.M. Estrada and S.A. Quandt of Overcoming language and literacy barriers in safety and health training of agricultural workers.

“Using a translator can be incredibly helpful, it’s costly but pays off tenfold,” Shea said. “Encouraging workers and employers to have monthly interpretive meetings can become habit and in the end, it can help stay on track. Lastly, hiring cleaners to clean employee housing can help immensely and is just the cost of doing business.”

Setting goals and letting the employees know they did a great job is a great way to decrease employee turnover rates, Shea added.

“The employers are sometimes the only ones these employees talk to on that farm, and it would mean a lot to just recognize a birthday or ask about their kids,” she said.

Read more: Farming and Immigration

The H-2A Visa Program

Along with language being one of the most common barriers between farm workers and employers, there are other variables that come into effect and employers must not overlook.

With the H-2A visa program, it’s difficult to get workers from overseas.

According to the United States Department of Labor, the H-2A visa program is a temporary agricultural program that allows agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring nonimmigrant foreign workers to the United States to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature.

“H-2A is seasonal to include dairy, but it’s never gone through,” Shea said. “In Vermont and on dairy farms specifically, there’s an inability to gain legal status, and that makes it impossible for dairy farms to hire these workers.”

A survey of 2,000 dairy farms in 2009 found that of the 138,000 full-time workers, 41% were foreign-born, according to Adcock P. Rosson, D. Susanto and D. Anderson of The Economic Impacts of Immigration on U.S. Dairy Farms.

“One of the biggest issues is the status of undocumented workers and the need for immigration reform,” Maloney said. “The immigration reform has been slow in the agricultural community. The dairy community only sees one solution, which is immigration reform, and that allows these undocumented workers to stay and work here with some kind of legalized program.”

“Another thing is the unfortunate issue that has evolved out of this, especially immigration reform, is that the workers become isolated on the farm because they’re afraid to go off the farm and employers are fearful of that as well,” he added.

The big question is, why haven’t policy makers made any decisions years ago?

“Amnesty has long been the deal breaker, it ends up getting in the way for workers that are already here,” Maloney said. “There has been considerable political momentum around not having anything in a law that amounts to amnesty. There is a great concern for enforcement and whether or not satisfactorily we’re enforcing laws today.”

Maloney added that two years ago, there was a comprehensive senate bill passed that included agricultural titles and provided citizenship for undocumented workers and guest workers that included dairy. Both were embraced by agricultural workers and the dairy industry. However, the House of Representatives failed to respond to that bill, and then there was the issue of what to do with 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Failure to mitigate the labor shortage, coupled with the increased pursuit of undocumented workers will have a devastating impact on the dairy industry, and by extension, the other industries it supports, according to Merrill Bent from A Land of Milk and Honey: Dairy Farms, H-2A Workers and Change on the Horizon.

Changes to the H-2A program are slowly starting to surface. Shea said “Something is going to happen and everyone is acknowledging that it’s going to happen.”

Read more: Is the H-2A program a good fit for my business? from Growing Magazine

What are the options for healthcare?

Healthcare has long been a problem.

A survey of 120 Hispanic dairy workers in Vermont found that fear of immigration enforcement was the greatest barrier to receiving health care, according to the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

Bridges to Health doesn’t have any age restrictions for Hispanic workers, and anybody who is working in agriculture that’s interested in healthcare, they work with them, Shea mentioned. Bridges to Health offers a three year grant and has federal dollars for health resources.

Farm owners come to Shea and say they don’t have to worry what to do in case of an emergency, thanks to Bridges to Health.

“Changes are slow but I definitely feel like we shed light on barriers that otherwise would have been left in the dark,” Shea said. “We don’t know what’s going on unless we make an effort to see it.”

Read more: The search for workers from Growing Magazine

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