UVM study reveals mental health risks for Latino dairy workers in Vermont

Clinic office open door in Middlebury. ODC photo

Jesus was not sleeping. His head was pounding in pain, and he felt weak and tired as he tried to continue his work on the dairy farm. He felt his heart pounding wildly in his chest, and his hands and arms numb and tingle, he told Julia Doucet, the outreach nurse at the Open Door Clinic.

The clinic provides free health care services to uninsured and underinsured people in Addison County, mainly Latino dairy workers like Jesus. There, Jesús – whose real name Doucet did not share to protect his confidentiality – took a full toll. Visits to specialists and even an MRI didn’t show anything wrong. Physically, he was fine.

But Doucet later learned the whole story.

Back in Mexico, men kidnapped her daughter and extorted her ransom from Jesus. He paid them, but they demanded more and threatened to kill his daughter. He was out of money and didn’t know what to do. And he couldn’t sleep.

Doucet said she often sees dairy workers like Jesús seeking treatment for physical symptoms which, after exhaustive testing, turn out to have roots in mental health, a problem she says is widespread in the community. .

Nearly 40% of Latino dairy workers in Vermont are under stress severe enough to pose a serious health risk, according to a recent report study by researchers at the University of Vermont, but few resources are available to help them.

The study found that issues related to immigration status, isolation, and workplace safety, among others, cause workers to experience clinically significant levels of stress.

Such high stress levels can cause direct health problems such as ulcers, high blood pressure, and sleep disturbances. They can also lead to distractions at work and an inability to pay attention that could create an unsafe work environment for the worker or others around them when handling cows and heavy machinery, according to Daniel Baker, researcher. principal of the study and associate professor at UVM in the Community Development and Applied Economics department.

There are few resources available in Vermont for Latino workers struggling with mental health, according to Doucet.

All of the Open Door Clinic providers work there on a voluntary basis, and only one mental health counselor speaks Spanish and offers limited telehealth appointments for short-term problems. Both psychologists and a clinical social worker who have volunteered are available to work with an interpreter, but many patients feel uncomfortable with such an arrangement and their hours are limited.

Doucet said a great stigma persists around mental health in the Latino dairy worker community, making it difficult for them to seek treatment or identify what is afflicting them in the first place.

Many of her patients have come to the United States due to an inability to thrive at home, have suffered from PTSD since their trip north, and live incredibly isolated and lonely in Vermont.

“Even if you are the most resilient person, you already have a lot of punches against you, just depending on what you have to do to get here and be here, and survive here, and even thrive here,” he said. she declared.

Concerns over immigration were the biggest stressors identified by the study, including trauma from difficult border crossings and fear of deportation. Dairy workers are not eligible for temporary H-2A work visas like fruit and vegetable producers, which means most Latino workers in the state are undocumented. Most of Vermont is also within 100 miles of the federal border, where the US Border Patrol has extensive powers that put undocumented immigrants at a higher risk of deportation, according to the study.

Isolation was also a top concern. Separation from friends and family in Mexico and Guatemala, where most of Vermont’s migrant workers come from, is stressful, as is living in an unfamiliar culture and language.

Very few Vermonters speak Spanish, and it is a predominantly white state, which can add stress to migrant workers who feel isolated and especially visible. Most dairy workers also live on farms and lack access to reliable transportation to leave, according to Baker.

Worker safety and the fear of injury on the job is another major stressor for dairy workers, who work with large animals, heavy machinery and a variety of harmful chemicals.

José Obeth Santiz Cruz, a dairy worker from Fairfield, died after being dragged into a gutter cleaner in 2009; he was strangled by his own clothes. In one 2019 survey led by Migrant Justice – an advocacy organization founded following the death of Santiz Cruz – 83% of dairy workers reported injuries due to chemical and biological hazards, 78% to animal hazards and 85% to hazards environmental.

Almost half of Latino dairy workers who responded to a 2010 survey conducted by the UVM Extension reported workplace injuries.

Rather than considering each source of stress separately, Baker pointed out that they are additive and can quickly exceed tolerable levels.

The study analyzed the results of a survey of Latino dairy workers across the state in 2016. Workers were asked to rank the level of stress they experienced against a series of zero questions. at five, five representing extreme stress and zero none. . The individual ratings were then used to create a ranked list of the top stressors across the board.

But aggregate rankings don’t tell the whole story, according to Baker. Some problems, although ranked lower overall, were extreme problems for a minority of workers. While housing, for example, was not seen as a stressor for the majority of migrants, around 10% of respondents classified it as an extreme stressor.

The lack of adequate housing is one of the main problems advocated by Migrant justice, as well as low wages, long working hours without breaks and poor worker safety. Many of these concerns were also extreme stressors for a minority of Latino dairy workers, information that Baker says is crucial to identifying issues and successfully implementing changes.

While some of the main stressors were related to issues beyond the control of Vermonters, such as national immigration policy and distance from home, the study recommended several possible steps at the local level, including expansion bilingual workplace safety programs.

In response to the findings reported in the study, the Vermont Agriculture Agency’s Northeastern Dairy Business Innovation Center awarded Baker a farm health and safety grant to work with Agrimark – the dairy cooperative that produces, among other things, Cabot cheese – to “extend and Safety training in Spanish for farm workers in Vermont.”

“In my opinion, it’s not the farmers versus the farm workers,” Baker said. “It’s a unique system that works best when there is better communication and understanding, and everyone is working for a healthier and safer environment. “

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