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Labor Groups Petition Darigold And Push For Safety Laws After Dairy Worker's Death

Ashley Gross
Protesters outside Darigold's Seattle headquarters

The death of a dairy farm worker in February is prompting a push for tougher safety laws and labor groups are asking the milk cooperative, Darigold, to meet to talk about improvements that can be made to protect workers. 

On Wednesday, protestors gathered outside Darigold's Seattle headquarters. But the front doors were locked and no one would answer the doorbell. Paul Benz, a minister with Faith Action Network, stood there knocking to no avail.

"Obviously, the Darigold corporation doesn’t want to come out and meet with us," Benz said. 

He then sank down to the ground for an impromptu sit-in with Washington State Labor Council President Jeff Johnson, Indira Trejo of the United Farm Workers and Nubia Guajardo, who lost her boyfriend Randy Vasquez earlier this year when he drowned in a pond of manure at a Yakima Valley dairy farm.

They were there to present Darigold with a petition calling on the company to meet with Guajardo and the United Farm Workers to talk about dairy farm safety. The farm where Vasquez worked, Riverview Ranch, is part of the Darigold cooperative.

Credit Ashley Gross / KPLU
(From left to right): Indira Trejo of the United Farm Workers, Nubia Guajardo, Paul Benz of the Faith Action Network and Jeff Johnson of the Washington State Labor Council

Tougher Laws?

State Representative Brady Walkinshaw, a Democrat from Seattle, says Vasquez’s death is part of a broader problem.

"We’ve seen a death in the dairy industry on average every 16 months since 2000," he said. "And we've also seen a significant number of serious injury claims that average actually more than one a day."

Walkinshaw, who grew up in Whatcom County surrounded by dairy farms, is planning to introduce a bill to improve dairy farm safety – such as requiring more inspections and training.

"I know that it's a huge concern for so many dairy farmers and families in the dairy industry, but it's also important that we look at the data and take note of the fact that this is still one of the most dangerous professions in the state to be working in," Walkinshaw said.

Darigold's Response

Darigold put out a statement saying its member farms are proud of their safety records but are always looking for ways to improve. The company said Vasquez’s death was truly an anomaly.

"It is our understanding that the dairy where Mr. Vasquez worked has had a very good safety record," Darigold said. "Nonetheless, the farm owner is committed to a thorough examination of what happened, looking at all information as it becomes available and, if appropriate, making changes."

The state has cited Riverview Ranch over Vasquez's death and assessed a penalty of $6,800, saying there weren't hazard signs posted near the manure pit and it wasn't separated by fencing. The farm has filed an appeal. 

Guajardo said dairy workers face hazardous conditions. Vasquez had already reported an accident to the Department of Labor and Industries about a month  before his death. Guajardo said he got acid in his eyes.

`Dairy Workers' Lives Matter'

"I just hope that they realize that dairy workers’ lives matter, too. They have families," she said.

Guajardo says she struggles with how to explain Vasquez's death to their three-year-old daughter and four-year-old son. She said her son asked her, "If I die, can I see my dad again?"

"I told him, `No,' of course. He goes, `We need to get a big balloon and go get him,'" she said. "He thinks by grabbing a balloon and going  to the sky, he could bring his daddy back."

Guajardo says she’s still hoping to meet with Darigold. She wants to make sure no one else dies the way Vasquez did. 

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.