On one side stand anti-immigrant activists, some calling illegal immigrant workers rapists and murderers needing instant deportation.
On the other side stands an industry facing a tightening labor market concerned about retaining immigrant laborers, many lacking legal work documentation yet skilled in performing dirty, dangerous jobs.
That’s the situation facing the dairy industry, a labor-intensive milking and feeding business that helps sustain the nation. It is a story that illustrates employee safety and workers’ compensation themes as the industry increases efforts to keep its scarce workers on the job.
The Idaho Dairymen’s Assn., for example, recently launched a safety program that includes teaching workers how to think like the animals they work with, said Bob Naerebout, the association’s executive director.
“Anytime you have an employee — and we consider all employees to be key employees — absent from work, that means you have to replace them with somebody who is not as well trained,” Naerebout said.
“There is an indirect cost in all of that.”
Naerebout’s words should sound familiar to employers across all industries whose safety and disability management programs have increasingly become key to keeping scarce, skilled workers on the job.
“Anytime you have an employee — and we consider all employees to be key employees — absent from work, that means you have to replace them with somebody who is not as well trained.” — Bob Naerebout, executive director, Idaho Dairymen’s Association
Savvy risk managers also know the indirect costs resulting from worker accidents and the increased injury risks accompanying new, replacement workers unfamiliar with the workplace.
“The labor market is tight, so you increase your efficiency by keeping your trained labor there — not by having to bring in substitute labor or temporary labor,” Naerebout said.
Productivity concerns are just one reason dairy organizations increasingly emphasize safety. They face intensified scrutiny following serious accidents.
Skid loaders, used to move feed and manure, can crush dairy workers. Other employees drown in manure pits. Did I mention these are dirty, dangerous jobs?
Workers get kicked by cows and squeezed by their 1,500-pound mass. To protect themselves, dairy farms, like other employers, purchase workers’ comp insurance.
Meanwhile, agricultural operations view heightened anti-immigrant rhetoric as a threat while dairy associations lobby Washington for immigration reform.
“Those who lack proper documentation — we feel obligated to them, to try and get comprehensive immigration reform that will provide them legal status,” Naerebout said.
There are also public education efforts.
The National Milk Producers Federation, for example, reports that half of all dairy farm workers are immigrants and losing them would double retail milk prices, costing the U.S. economy tens of billions of dollars.
Opposing their efforts are the anti-immigrant activists, like a radio host who dismisses dairy industry concerns over a tight labor market. Kick welfare recipients off the public dole and they will work dairy jobs, the radio host argues.
“We are one of the few organizations that is standing up to [the anti-immigrant rhetoric], advocating for immigration reform,” Naerebout said. But quelling those voices might prove even tougher than mitigating workers’ comp losses.
“I am not sure there is anything that would satisfy them,” Naerebout said. &