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0809 PD: Meet the challenge of managing Latino workers

Harley Wagenseller Published on 18 May 2009

Are you up for a challenge? Many people relish a challenge. They go out of their way to get in on the action.

Employee management on many dairy farms is the absolute last thing that many managers want to deal with. They would rather IV a down cow in a pouring rainstorm outside rather than handle a cranky employee. Sometimes the problem is made worse when you can’t effectively communicate with an employee who speaks another language. In the dairy field, that language quite often is Spanish. Yes, dealing with Latino workers can be a challenge when you don’t have any idea what they are saying. In this article we will consider what some of the challenges are and offer possible solutions to some of these management challenges.



My own personal observations
In my more than 30 years of experience in the dairy industry, I have seen what one could call the good, bad and the ugly. I have witnessed managers who have cursed at their Latino workers. One worker who was actually punched in the face, and many who worked every day, 60 days in a row, without a day off! Conversely, I have also witnessed Latino workers who would come to work so inebriated that they were a danger to themselves, other workers and the cows.

I have also listened to Latino workers verbally abuse and curse at the manager. Little did they realize that this boss understood some Spanish. I have seen what amounted to near corruption by one Latino who ruled with an iron fist over five others. He took a large portion of their wages for himself, basically keeping the other workers in servitude. What was worse was the dairy manager at this large dairy actually supported this action, reasoning that he was keeping the Latinos “in line.” How terrible! Unfortunately, these things took place. However, what we now will proceed to do is talk with two hardworking Latinos on our 600-cow dairy. We will discuss some challenges and then hear what their solutions are.

The following is my interview with Chris Gonzalez, our employee supervisor, and his brother, Jose, our feed manager:

What are some hiring challenges for Latinos?

Chris & Jose: Many Latinos come to work in the U.S. for different reasons. Some come for several years, some for only a few months. They understand that many local people will not do this kind of work. It’s often manual labor and many workers in the U.S. are not willing or capable of performing these task. With that being said, some Latinos will tell you they have experience when they don’t. They will say anything to get the job.


One of the challenges that many managers in the U.S. experience is hiring Latinos who can neither read nor write Spanish. Many managers go to great lengths to get written protocols for such things as milking procedures, calving issues, etc., only to find out that they can’t read Spanish. How do we deal with this challenge?

Chris & Jose: The first way to get an understanding of this is to have them fill out an application at the dairy. Oftentimes they will come to the dairy as a group. Have them fill an application out by themselves. If they can’t write it out or bring their 10-year-old to fill it out for them, you have a clue. You have a decision to make. Since we have a lot of written instructions in Spanish, such as cow movements, feeding changes or milking protocols, you might decide they can’t do these particular jobs. If you have a large enough dairy and you keep a Latino who can’t read and write, you can then assign a specific job where these skills are not necessary.

Are there personality issues to consider?

Chris & Jose: Yes, there are. Many Latinos are somewhat timid. They oftentimes won’t tell the boss that they can’t do something. They will say anything to get the job. There also seems to be quite a difference between younger Latinos who come here with no responsibilities and older guys who have wives and children back in Mexico. They have a sense of responsibility. They have to maintain their job. Their work ethic is great. They are quite a contrast to many younger Latinos who act like a lot of young people in the U.S. Their work ethic is poor, they drink a lot and they occasionally demonstrate an arrogant attitude. They don’t like to be told what to do. These people usually take themselves out.

What would you like to see in American dairy managers?

Chris & Jose: Change the attitude that Latinos need to learn English. This is not going to happen. Some of us are only going to be here for a short time. Some of us will try and learn some English to help us get by. We look for dairy farms where the manager can speak some Spanish. The other important thing is to have one boss to report to. Three different people telling you what to do just doesn’t work. Too often you are blamed for things that are not your fault.


What ideas would you offer for easier management?

Chris & Jose: Give your workers a voice. We want to feel like we are part of the decision-making process. Make it plain to all workers that each shift may be slightly different. On our farm, the morning shift (we have three shifts on this farm, 5 a.m. to 1 p.m., 1 to 9 p.m., 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.) has more responsibilities, such as more time with fresh cows, the foot doctor every other Wednesday, dry cows every Monday, moving all dry cows through the footbath twice a week.

On this farm we have found that having one voice to speak for the Latinos (in this case, Chris) works the best. When we have our monthly meetings all the workers look to Chris for reminders, new instructions, etc. It helps to have the lead Latino convey accurately the boss’ instructions.

As a Caucasian manager, I have found that it helps to know “dairy Spanish” and more. My wife is fluent in Spanish, and while I understand some of it she reassures me that the correct message is being spoken. Formerly we had a Latino lead man who actually told the workers in Spanish not to listen to the “patron” (boss in Spanish), but only to him.I wondered why we were having so many unresolved problems.

I hope this article has given many of you managers and owners food for thought. We realize we have a good thing going with so many hardworking, loyal Latinos. We really want them to progress in their dairy knowledge and to grow with our dairies. Please resolve to meet the challenge and improve management of your Latino workers. PD

Harley Wagenseller Manager Heijmans Family Dairy