This past month, the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) released the results of a survey and study of immigrant labor use on U.S. dairy farms.
When we posted the story online, opinions came fast and furious. Most expressed those opinions based on their own perceptions, without fully reading or understanding the story or the study.
NMPF sent out surveys to 5,000 dairy farmers in fall 2014, and had 1,000 useable responses returned. Here’s what dairy farmers told NMPF:
- Immigrant labor accounts for about 50% of labor on U.S. dairy farms. Roughly 77,000 immigrant workers are employed by U.S. dairy farmers.
- Average wages paid on dairy farms is $11.54 per hour. With overtime and benefits, that amounts to a $34,443 annual salary.
- Eliminating immigrant labor from U.S. dairy farms would result in reducing the number of farms by more than 7,000 and cow numbers by 2.1 million. Retail milk prices would climb 90%.
- Eliminating immigrant labor on dairy farms would reduce overall U.S. economic activity by $32 billion. It would also reduce U.S. employment by 208,000 jobs, or roughly 2½ times the number of immigrant workers now employed.
The study, once again, dispelled a couple of myths—if people took the time to read it.
Myth 1. If dairy farmers only paid more, they’d find willing native-born works.
At $11.50 per hour, dairy farmers on average are paying about $1 per hour less than landscapers and 75¢ per hour less than slaughter houses. They are paying $2 per hour more than fast food restaurants.
When you add in overtime, benefits and housing, however, total compensation for dairy workers exceeds $34,000 per year. That compares to $25,000 per year for landscape workers and $18,250 for full-time fast food employees.
Myth 2. Dairy farmers willingly recruit and employ illegal immigrants. The reality is that it’s nearly impossible to know who is here legally, and who is not. U.S. employment laws prohibit employers from demanding specific types of identification from job applicants. Identity documents must be originals that “reasonably appear genuine on their face,” says Anthony Raimondo, a California attorney. If they appear legitimate, they must be accepted. And here’s the kicker: Employers cannot specify which documents job applicants submit to verify identity and legitimacy. “You (employers) cannot require an employee to provide a Social Security card,” he says.
That’s not to say dairy farm employers aren’t nervous about the legal status of their workers. Only about 30% of those surveyed have high confidence in the documents job applicants provide. And only 20% don’t have at least some level of concern about Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) actions on their dairies.
But dairy farmers are still faced with the fact that few native-born citizens want to work on dairies. So they are left with little choice but to accept the documents offered by immigrants and hope that ICE doesn’t pay them a visit.
What is needed is comprehensive immigration reform, where immigrant workers can come here and be here legally to do the work nobody else wants to do.