Protecting Worker Well-Being in Immigrant Populations

Protecting Worker Well-Being in Immigrant Populations

This episode of Workplace Matters looks at Latino immigrant and migrant populations working in meatpacking and cattle feed yards.

Dr. Athena Ramos from the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha led teams to examine the health outcomes of these populations. In this episode we look at hazards in these industries, try to understand why they are experiencing these hazards, and discuss what could be done to improve the situation.

Michael: You’re listening to Workplace Matters. In this episode we are looking at immigrant workers from 2 difficult and demanding industries with high rates of injuries, trying to understand why they are experiencing these hazards, and what could be done to improve the situation.

Athena: So, between the cattle feeding industry and the meatpacking industry, there are a number of similarities that workers experience on the job and experience because of who they are.

Michael: Dr. Athena Ramos is an associate professor in the Department of Health Promotion at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. Dr. Ramos’s work focuses on community-based health research in a variety of areas including health disparities in Latino immigrant and migrant populations. Before and during the height of the pandemic, Dr. Ramos led a team investigating the health outcomes and experiences of Latino workers in cattle feedyards and the meatpacking industry.

Athena: I would say about half of the cattle feedyard workforce in our area and a majority of the meatpacking industry, they’re immigrant workers. So not only are they experiencing dirty, dangerous and demanding work on the job, but they’re also affected by perhaps limited English proficiency. They may be undocumented, which also leads to not feeling like you can advocate on your behalf and say no and stand up to work that you feel is unsafe because you’re afraid of losing your job, losing the support system for your family, perhaps not just your family here in the United States, but also your family and your country of origin. A lot of the workers have very limited, formal education. They don’t know about their rights as workers in the United States, oftentimes because a lot of the worker education that goes on is mainly focused in urban areas. And a lot of times, the industries that I work with agriculture and meatpacking are in much more rural, isolated types of communities where there isn’t that type of community infrastructure in place, especially multilingual community infrastructure to be able to deliver these types of know your rights trainings or other types of supportive systems in the communities that oftentimes they just don’t exist.

Michael: Immigrant workers face several challenges. They, like everyone, need to make a living, but they work in the most hazardous jobs, for long hours, for low wages, often with limited English, and have limited ability to advocate for themselves.

Athena: You know, people are working long hours. When you come home, you’re tired it’s hard to be able to interact with your family and be able to give your family the attention that they deserve when you’re extremely exhausted from the types of grueling work that a lot of these folks actually do on a day-to-day basis. Six days is a pretty standard work week in the meatpacking industry, and seven days is pretty standard in the cattle feeding industry. What we hear a lot from the cattle feeding workers is that they work 13 days on and then they get one or two days off and then it’s another 13 days on. So it’s quite a grueling type of schedule.

Michael: The demanding hours of their jobs take away from workers spending time with family and friends. That lack of work-life balance causes stress, which over time can lead to heart conditions, hypertension, or addiction, and increased strain on their mental health. So, what is the level of compensation for working under these conditions?

Athena: Pay in the meatpacking industry has gone up tremendously, especially during the pandemic, as employers have really struggled to be able to recruit and retain the workforce that they need to be able to meet production goals. So, before the pandemic, I would say an average wage in the industry was roughly around $16 an hour. Now a standard starting wage is roughly around 23 to $25 an hour in the meatpacking industry. So, the pandemic did increase the wages for the individuals who are working in the meatpacking industry. Now is $25 adequate for the risk and the dangers that experience every day? I think that’s a question that we still need to be asking.

In the cattle feeding industry pay rates are lower than in the packing industry. We found on average that the workers who participated in our study were making about $700 a week. You can see that that hourly wage is really quite low but how do you get people to stay in cattle feeding? And I think some people see some perks and being able to do that kind of work, for example, it’s part of their cultural identity to work on a farm, perhaps it’s because they grew up working cattle in their own country of origin.

Michael: The cattle feed yard workers regularly work upwards of 60 hours per week, and are paid approximately $12 per hour for a demanding and dangerous job. One where, according to Dr. Ramos’s data, 71% of workers reported a job-related injury.

Athena: Cattle feeding is a high-risk type of job. You’re interacting with large animals on a daily basis. You are trying to move animals in different ways that maybe the animal doesn’t want to go to. Perhaps you may not have had any job-related training. Maybe you’ve never worked cattle before in your life, and this is the first job in coming to the United States. And here you are working cattle that you have no idea on how to interact with them appropriately. And so it does create a lot of risk to the workers.

Michael: In the meatpacking industry, there could be a dozen to two dozen languages spoken in the workplace, making communication regarding hazards more challenging. Workers can be exposed to dangerous equipment, hazardous chemicals, heavy lifting, and infectious diseases.

Athena: So, prior to the pandemic, my team and I were doing research with meatpacking workers to explore some of the health risks that were associated with working in that industry. COVID hit. And as we all know, the meatpacking industry was disproportionately impacted by COVID 19, especially in the workplace. Our team actually did 15 site visits to meatpacking employers throughout our state. We took tours of facilities.  It was clear from the conversations we were having both with facilities and with folks in the community that there were some discrepancies on what was going on and our community partners were calling on us to document what was the lived experience of workers.

So through this survey we actually were able to document some of the protective strategies that workers reported. The things that really make a difference, like providing paid sick leave or making sure that that you’re spacing people out and providing distance, especially in common areas, those sorts of things were the least frequently reported types of measures from workers. Through this project, much to my surprise, we actually received hundreds and hundreds of comments from workers sharing their stories about the things that they were feeling and that they were experiencing every day that they went to work and every day when they came home from work. So we heard about things like, for example, if I’m an essential worker, shouldn’t you protect my health more than money? Does my life matter more than a cow?


Michael: This is what these Latino immigrant populations are facing in their industries. Obviously, not every industry is like this. Positions are often less strenuous, and are not predominantly immigrant populations. That doesn’t mean that another industry can’t learn from these examples. Literature has shown that new workers are more likely to become injured on the job and an effective way of mitigating that is with training and supervision.

Athena: I think one of the things that we found is that there is a lot of room for improvement in the type of training that we provide to workers. For example, oftentimes in agriculture, workers start the job, and they get the one-day training of, you know, here’s everything you need to know, and here’s your hour of safety training, watch this video. So, one of the things we can do is try to create more a more intensive and more culturally, linguistically, logistically appropriate types of trainings. We can also pair up workers, a new worker with a more experienced worker. And so there’s more of a mentoring program where people are able to to shadow somebody who has a lot of experience in doing that job and can really show them the ropes. We found that is relatively common in the cattle feeding industry, is that shadowing or they say, hey, you know, watch that person, watch how they do it and then do it like them in the absence of a more formalized training structure.

Michael: Without enough formalized safety training, these workers are unprepared for the hazards their work environment presents. From the outset they should know what hazards they need to be aware of, and have an onboarding program to teach them the safety procedures. Good onboarding involves multi-day trainings, mentoring, frequent check-ins, and open lines of communication between supervisors and workers. It is creating an environment for employees to ask questions and feel comfortable saying if they are worried about something. These larger systemic issues that these workers face can illustrate fundamental problems with how the workplace is structured, and often it comes down to a disconnect between management and workers.

Athena: I think some of the things employers can do is stop and take time to really understand how the work is being conducted from the workers perspective. I think oftentimes managers, supervisors come in with an idea of how production is supposed to go or how the work is supposed to flow. But the reality and that ideal are quite different. And so sometimes it takes being able to understand and what that lived reality is for the workers and being able to explore that more in depth by not just watching how the work is conducted but actually talking to people and asking their opinion about how work could be better.

Michael: The participatory approach involves workers representing various departments, shifts, and job classifications to find effective solutions. This method of decision making can help improve workplace culture and engagement.

Athena: One of the things that we’ve tried to do is ask workers, what are your ideas what are your recommendations for making work safer? And that can really generate some new perspectives, especially for individuals, perhaps in management or supervisory roles that don’t have that day to day connection with the work. Have an open line of communication and not just go in with how work should be done but be open to understanding that there may be other ways to accomplish the same work, the same production, the same task that may be safer and may work better from the worker’s perspective.

Athena: Workers are workers, but they’re also people, too. They have lives, they have families, they have interests, they have passions. And they have skills and they have talents. They are not only cogs in a machine or cogs in a wheel. An employer can really try to build community and camaraderie among their workforce. I know in some industries, sometimes in the meat packing industry we’ve heard in particular, that there’s a very divisive power relationships between supervisors and line workers. Are there opportunities there to decrease some of those power imbalances and really create more of a team focus environment and build that camaraderie and that sense of community among people who are working in the field?

Michael: This idea of creating community within their workforce is central to worker well-being. A community looks out for one another and cares for each other on multiple levels; physical health, mental health, safety, financial security. That sense of community must be felt throughout the organization. When employers understand the interaction between work and health there is more of a vested interest in seeing employees be happy and health.  An organization that creates a unified sense of community is one that cares for its employees in and outside of work, and one people want to work for.

Athena: And so I think we’ve got to think about all of those other things that can influence an individual’s health and safety on the job outside of just the work environment. So we’ve got to think about multiple levels of influence. What’s going on in the community? What are the laws or the policies or the things that are going on at a federal level, at a state level, maybe at a local level that are impacting and influencing people’s decisions on the job? And then how do we create a system where everybody has an opportunity to thrive, where everybody has an opportunity to be as healthy and safe on and off the job as possible

Michael: Workplace Matter’s is supported by the national institute for occupational safety and health. This episode was made in collaboration with the Great Plains Center for Agricultural Health who we would like to thank for their assistance in making this happen. To listen to more podcasts, view our ongoing video series, or for more information about us, visit healthier workforce center (dot) org. Thank you.

The Workplace Matters podcasts are located here.