Child’s death on Wisconsin dairy farm moves officials to action
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State and local officials in Wisconsin said they were horrified to learn of the conditions that led to the 2019 death of an 8-year-old Nicaraguan boy on a dairy farm, as well as the flawed police investigation that followed. Now they say they want to address some of the issues highlighted by a ProPublica investigation, published last month, into the death of Jefferson Rodríguez.
“What happened should never have happened,” said state Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Vélez, a Milwaukee Democrat whose maternal family worked as migrant farm workers in Wisconsin in the 1960s.
Jefferson was struck 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 authorities investigating Jefferson’s death erroneously 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 deputy sheriff who interviewed him. Rodriguez does not speak English; the deputy considered herself proficient in Spanish, but not fluent. When we interviewed the deputy, we learned that when she asked Rodríguez in Spanish about what happened, her words did not mean what she thought and would probably be confusing to a Spanish speaker.
Jefferson’s death was ruled an accident. No one was criminally charged.
“Competition in a crisis is not enough,” said Dana Pellebon, a member of the Dane County Board of Supervisors. “Unfortunately, until a situation like this occurs, sometimes we don’t see the gaps in service.”
Pellebon and several other supervisors told ProPublica that they were looking at measures that could improve language access for non-English speakers who interact with the sheriff’s office. According to US Census estimates, more than 10% of Dane County residents speak a language other than English at home.
“This issue of language barriers to people exercising and asserting their rights, from law enforcement to human services to our court system, is rampant,” County Supervisor Heidi Wegleitner said. “There really needs to be a countywide, comprehensive examination of these barriers, because it’s not fair.”
The Board of Supervisors sets the budget and can make recommendations to the sheriff’s office. But it has limited ability to set policy.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office said the agency has a qualified and diverse staff who are equipped with the tools it needs, including “unrestricted access” to language translation services. The department is “always looking for ways to improve the services provided to the community, including evaluating current practices and considering [of] recommendations received,” the spokesperson said.
At the state level, Ortiz-Velez pointed to a bill that would allow DACA recipients to become police officers or deputy sheriffs. (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is a federal program that provides temporary protection from deportation to some undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children.) Currently, only US citizens can work as police officers or deputy sheriffs in Wisconsin. “For us, having officers who are fluent, who were born in other countries and can speak the language, I think it could be very helpful,” Ortiz-Vélez said.
Our story about Jefferson’s death is the first in our series, America’s Dairyland, which aims to explore work, housing, and other conditions for immigrant dairy workers in Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest. Here are three takeaways from our reporting efforts thus far:
1. Throughout Wisconsin, law enforcement officials face language barriers when responding to incidents on dairy farms.
Under the Civil Rights Act, agencies that receive federal funds must ensure that their services are accessible to people who speak limited English. The Department of Justice, which wrote guidelines for law enforcement agencies on this issue nearly two decades ago, occasionally investigates departments that fail to comply with this requirement.
Last year, we began requesting records of law enforcement responses to incidents ranging from work-related injuries to assaults on dairy farms throughout Wisconsin. What those records show us is that officials routinely encounter language barriers when interacting with dairy workers. They often rely on farm supervisors or employees to serve as interpreters; sometimes they resort to Google translate or children.
The Dane County Sheriff’s Office does not have a written policy on how deputies should respond to incidents involving non-English speakers, or on when to bring an interpreter. The department does not assess the language skills of the employees, but they themselves report on their proficiency. But as a general practice, department officials have said that when officers need to communicate with residents who speak a language other than English, they are supposed to make a call to ask if any of their colleagues speak that language, and if not there are none available. , ask for help from other nearby agencies.
2. It’s an open secret that the Wisconsin dairy industry depends on undocumented immigrant labor.
Because the workers are undocumented, it is often more difficult for them to talk about unfair or unsafe conditions.
Rodríguez and his son immigrated to the United States from Nicaragua in early 2019 in search of economic opportunities. As an asylum seeker, Rodríguez did not have a work permit. She used fake papers to get a job at D&K Dairy. (In a statement, the farm owner said he was unaware of Rodriguez’s citizenship status.)
Rodríguez earned $9.50 an hour and, like other workers, regularly worked 70 to 80 hour weeks. Farm work is excluded from many of the US labor protections, so there was no overtime pay for working more than 40 hours. Like many Wisconsin dairy farms, D&K Dairy provided free lodging. But the house that Rodríguez and his son occupied was not in a house; they lived in an apartment above the milking parlor, the barn where hundreds of cows were brought in day and night to be milked by heavy and noisy machinery.
For years, the dairy industry, complaining of labor shortages, has lobbied unsuccessfully for access to the federal H-2A guest worker program, which allows employers to bring in foreign employees temporarily when they can’t find local workers. Currently, the program is limited to seasonal farm work; dairying is a year-round job.
Critics say the guest worker program is open to abuse and exploitation as immigrants’ ability to stay in the US is tied to a single employer, leading to several high-profile cases. of forced labor, wage theft, substandard housing, and high costs. recruitment fees, among other issues.
3. Small farms don’t always receive 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 an agricultural employee.
Even when workers are killed or injured on small farms, OSHA’s ability to respond is limited. Farms with fewer than 11 workers are often exempt from supervision. (Some states with their own OSHA plans do more, but Wisconsin is not one of them.) And the federal agency has few safety standards for farm 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 OSHA initiated ultimately failed to take place because the farms were too small to fall under the agency’s jurisdiction; three of those six involved deaths.
“Dairy operations these days are basically big factories,” said Dane County Supervisor Michael Engelberger. “They should not be exempt from any OSHA regulations or special farm labor laws. To me that’s wrong.”
Wegleitner said he hopes to convene a group of supervisors, community advocates, county staff and others to discuss next steps in the coming weeks.
“Language access is one piece,” he said. “We have unsafe housing, lack of inspections and oversight, and all of those things may not be things that the county can legislate. But if we’re speaking up and advocating for state and federal lawmakers and groups and working in coalition, I think this needs to be addressed on multiple levels.”
We plan to continue reporting on issues affecting immigrant dairy workers throughout the Midwest. Among those issues: traffic stops of undocumented immigrants driving 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 explore? Get in touch with this form.
And if you know of a Spanish-speaking person who might be interested in this topic, please share with them a translated version of the Jefferson death story—which also includes an audio version—or this note on how to contact us.
Here’s our research — and an audio version — in Spanish, as well as a letter explaining how you can contact us if you want to share information about the dairy industry in Wisconsin and nearby states.