This article is part of The Wisconsin Idea, an investigative reporting initiative focused on rural Wisconsin.
For many residents, the world seemed to come to an abrupt halt in the first days of Wisconsin’s emergency “Safer at Home” order, imposed at the start of the pandemic, just over a year ago. On March 25, nonessential businesses closed, children stayed home from school and many set up offices from home. For people like H, whose name we are withholding because he is undocumented, that day was the same as any other.
“The cows have to be milked 24 hours a day, so for us [dairy workers] there wasn’t a break,” he said in Spanish.
H is one of the estimated 14,684 people in Wisconsin employed by a dairy farm. Originally from Mexico, H came to the U.S. five years ago and has worked in dairy ever since. He often works seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day and sends most of his earnings back home to his family. At the start of the pandemic, H says he and the other workers on the farm felt frightened.
“More than anything, that we’d get sick and wouldn’t know where to go to get help,” he said.
As outbreaks of Covid-19 began cropping up across the country, thousands of dairy workers were left on their own, isolated in rural areas without reliable internet or transportation. Many lack access to healthcare, have limited or no English and live in constant fear of immigration authorities. H might not have received any assistance in navigating the pandemic had it not been for a small group of community healthcare workers operating a new project called the Hmong and Hispanic Communication Network.
“They came and told us about the symptoms of the disease and that we had the right not to work if we got sick,” he said.
Born in New York City to Colombian immigrants, Tony Gonzalez, one of the original collaborators with the Hmong and Hispanic Communication Network, has always lived in two cultures. Out of high school, he served in the U.S. Air Force and later spent time living across Latin America, including in Costa Rica, Bolivia and Colombia. On the day of our interview, he wore a bright red Wisconsin Badgers hoodie and behind him, on the wall of his office, hung a small sign that read, “I believe in Colombia.” Fluent in Spanish and English, Gonzalez sees his work as helping to bring the two worlds together.
“I feel that God has given me many blessings and one of them is talking a lot,” he said.
In addition to his position with the Hmong and Hispanic Communication Network, Gonzalez works as a court interpreter in Wausau, Wisconsin, where he’s resided for the last decade. In his mid-fifties, he’s part of the state’s rapidly growing Latino population that’s nearly doubled in size since the early 2000s.
Gonzalez moved to Wisconsin to be close to family, but many others have immigrated here for work on dairy farms. Hailing mainly from Mexico and Central America, they’re pulled to rural towns where they fill crucial jobs in an industry struggling with a massive labor shortage. According to one study from 2015, immigrants now represent over 50% of dairy workers nationwide — in north central Wisconsin, Gonzalez believes that number is at least 70% in larger dairies. A large share of these workers are also undocumented, meaning they don’t qualify for most public assistance and tend to exist under the radar.
As the number of Covid-19 cases in Wisconsin began ticking upwards, Gonzalez says he was immediately concerned for people like H, recognizing they’d be the first to slip through the cracks. His first thought was to call Corina Norrbom, a family physician and Health Policy Fellow with the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service.
“I mentioned to her my concerns with Covid-19… something needs to be done, regardless of their status, because this is a human issue, [we’re] dealing with health,” he said.
Gonzalez had met Norrbom a few years earlier, while working together on a grassroots initiative to address issues of racial tension within the rapidly diversifying community.
Just 50 years ago, north central Wisconsin was, as Norrbom describes it, “lily white” — then, in the late 1970s, a large Hmong population resettled in the area. In more recent years, Mexican restaurants have opened up across town and according to U.S. Census Data 3% of residents now identify as Latino as do just under half of students in some local school districts. Norrbom, who’s from here, remembers witnessing this transition, particularly on the dairy farms.
“When I was growing up, my classmates were doing chores in the morning. Nowadays it’s mostly immigrant labor” she said.
When it comes to the subject of immigration, this region is not without the same tensions that divide the rest of the country; some residents have embraced the diversity while others oppose it and use immigrants as a scapegoat to shore up support for xenophobic ideology.
In May 2020, as hospitals around the country struggled with surges of Covid-19 patients, the candidates in a special election for Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional District held a virtual debate. Republican candidate Tom Tiffany — then a Wisconsin state senator— stated that undocumented residents “should go to their home country, wherever that is, and they should get their healthcare needs covered in that location.”
Tiffany, whose campaign was endorsed by President Trump, went on to win the congressional seat on May 12, 2020.
In reality, the most iconic industry in “dairyland” doesn’t just depend heavily on immigrant workers — at this point, it would collapse without them. A 2017 study found that without immigrant labor the price for a gallon of milk would increase 90% and cut U.S. economic output by $32.1 billion.
Farmers here are hard pressed to find anyone else willing to do this work and have learned to look the other way when it comes to immigration status. The farmhands who run the milking parlors, feed the cows and clean up after them, earn $11-$13 an hour and typically receive free housing. Many immigrant dairy workers were farmers themselves in their home country. Out here, Gonzalez jokes, “the cows only speak Spanish.”
It was a colleague of Norrbom who suggested they apply for a grant meant for Covid-19 rapid response initiatives. From there, the small group, including Gonazlez, considered whom in the community was not being reached by traditional media or messaging from local government.
“We thought about [the] Hmong and Hispanic populations in this area because of their language and literacy barriers,” said Norrbom.
Gonzalez was selected as a coordinator for the program and went to work talking to people in the local Latino community to understand what information and resources were lacking. What he found was that many weren’t taking the virus seriously, assuming it was nothing more than a bad flu. He also learned that people weren’t answering calls from contact tracers, worried that they might share their information with immigration. Similarly, they feared filling out medical forms at the community clinic, or using any public resource for fear it would impact their immigration case in the future.
From there came the idea to form a team of community liaisons: For Gonzalez, this meant recruiting people who themselves, or their family members, worked in dairy.
“It was very important and crucial to this project that you are a trusted messenger, someone among us,” he said.
The team quickly realized they wouldn’t be able to rely on more typical means of outreach. In rural areas, many lack a reliable internet connection and even then the online information may only be available in English. Even the local information hotline didn’t seem to have enough interpreters. In addition, data collected by H2N reveals many in this community have not completed high school and Norrbom says many also struggle with reading. This meant written materials, like pamphlets, wouldn’t suffice as a form of outreach.
At the end of the day, Norrbom said building an effective model, “takes bucking the very infrastructure that we have.”
A proposal was written, carefully outlining the idea for community healthcare workers, who would bring information and resources out to people on dairy farms and in churches and neighborhoods. When that proposal was rejected, Gonzalez took issue with the explanation they were given by the grant committee: they did not believe this model they’d created would work.
“When you tell me that you told me one or two things,” said Gonzalez, “you have a model that works. Or that doing nothing is better than doing something.”
Eventually, funding from the local Community Foundation of North Central WI and various non-profit healthcare systems, like Marshfield Clinic, got the Hmong and Hispanic Communication Network, or H2N, off the ground. In their first few months, community healthcare workers drove for hours across the state to hand out PPE and sanitizer and to hold trainings on Covid-19 prevention and symptoms. Once out in the field, they were able to report back on what information and resources were missing.
Most importantly, this small group with limited funding was serving a large and highly vulnerable population that few others seemed to be reaching directly. The many federally funded programs in Wisconsin that serve agricultural workers with health and education resources exclude people in dairy because they’re employed year-round. In turn, H2N quickly met a host of emerging needs, like quarantine space for those who lived in crowded worker housing or rent assistance for people who’d been too sick to work.
Later, H2N received a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services to distribute the flu shot, which would serve as a primer for the eventual distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine. The team set up pop-up clinics in churches and community centers and talked to folks about vaccine hesitancy. Gonzalez says a lot of their work has centered around “myth dispelling” and they’ve heard every vaccine conspiracy theory, from DNA alteration to infertility and microchips.
“We did some videos and everything showing the size of a chip, the size of the needle,” he said.
On March 1, agricultural workers became eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine and H2N has been busy enrolling the many people they connected with during flu season. This includes H, who recently received his first shot of the Moderna vaccine.
“Without [H2N] I wouldn’t have the vaccine or even know anything about it,” he said. “I don’t know this area, I don’t know the people, I really never leave [the farm].”
As Covid-19 quickly became a wedge in the country’s political divide, the team confronted unexpected challenges. Gonzalez recalls several employers who dismissed that the virus was even real and declined their services. That of course put their workers, who needed permission to get time off and to quarantine, in a bind.“So people continued to work, many times sick, and all it did was make the situation worse,” he said.
Measuring the number of positive cases in Wisconsin that are linked to dairy farms has proved challenging. According to county health officials, farms are not considered “public facing” and therefore the Wisconsin Electronic Disease Surveillance System does not consistently document if a workplace happens to be a dairy farm.
A statistical model, developed by Purdue University, estimates that nearly 21,000 agricultural workers in Wisconsin contracted Covid-19. (According to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, the industry employs about 154,000 “on-farm” workers statewide.) Meanwhile, officials from Dane and Marathon County Health Departments, which have the largest populations of farmworkers in the state, could only confirm that they had seen positive cases among dairy workers — not how many.
In many ways, the H2N project has highlighted the degree to which Wisconsin’s dairy workers are living in the shadows and how little is known about them. Community healthcare workers were surprised to find a farm that employed a group of Kenyans who only spoke Swahili. They’ve also discovered that many workers from Mexico don’t speak-Spanish but Otomi, an indigenious language.
The invisibility of these workers also makes them vulnerable to abuse. According to Legal Action of Wisconsin, which provides free legal services to low-income people, including agricultural workers in Wisconsin, reports of wage theft and workers compensation claims are the most common issues they hear from dairy workers.
The circumstances of undocumented farm workers could change thanks to a piece of legislation, known as the Farm Workforce Modernization Act: the latest version of the bill would create a path to citizenship for anyone who can prove their employment in agriculture over the last two years, including in dairy. It was recently passed by the House of Representatives and awaits consideration by the Senate. Gonzalez says recognition of these workers is overdue.
“You’re talking about people that are very hard workers, that are contributing, that during this last year of the pandemic were labeled as essential workers, that had to be in the fields and kept putting the food on our tables,” he said.
He believes that H2N has pushed his own community to acknowledge these workers and the immense disadvantages they face. So far they estimate they’ve reached over 2,000 people and while their model was met with skepticism at first, H2N is helping the health department in nearby Wood County to carry out similar outreach efforts in that community.
Zoe Sullivan contributed research to this feature.
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Esther Honig built her career reporting for public radio stations across the Midwest and Colorado. She began to focus on agriculture and farm labor during her time at Harvest Public Media, a regional reporting collaborative, where she frequently contributed to NPR news, covering the impacts of Trump’s trade wars and immigration policies. A fluent Spanish-speaker, Esther works in audio and print to tell stories about agriculture, U.S. immigration policy, climate change and rural issues. She is was selected for the UC Berkeley ‑11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship in 2021.