Beyond the Barn: Employee Empowerment Through the Understanding of Hispanic Culture – Vita Plus Dairy Summit

Posted on February 28, 2014 in Starting Strong - Calf Care

Panelists: (left to right) Cody Heller, Heller Farms; Ignacio Escamilla, Heller Farms; and Vicente Ramirez, T&K Red River Dairy

Click to download panel discussion presentation

By Peggy Coffeen, Progressive Dairyman
Taking the time to understand the culture of Hispanic employees can build loyalty and cut down on costly turnover.

During the Vita Plus Dairy Summit, Cody Heller, Cows R Us Consulting and Heller Farms Inc., provided an overview of the heritage, traditions and values celebrated among the Hispanic culture, and two Hispanic dairy managers opened up about their personal journeys to becoming U.S. citizens and living out the American dream.

Why are Hispanics here in America?
Poor economic conditions and social unrest are motivating factors that drive Hispanics to risk it all in pursuit of a better life north of the border.

“They are not here because they long to milk cows,” said Heller. “They are here because they can’t make any money in Mexico.”

Unqualified workers may only earn a couple hundred dollars each month in their homeland. In many cases, those who come to the United States are sending back 80 percent of their paychecks to support immediate and extended family members remaining in Mexico.

Beyond limited work opportunities, Mexico is a down-right dangerous place to live. The extensively armed drug cartel overpowers both government and law enforcement. With 10,000 gunmen roaming the streets, fear rules these towns and villages. Killing is sport for this militia, and decapitation is its calling card.

While living conditions in Mexico are certainly not safe, crossing the border is risky business too. Individuals pay a “coyote” $4,000 to $5,000 to sneak them into the United States, at the risk of being caught, kidnapped, held for ransom or worse.

“There is no life in Mexico right now,” added Ignacio Escamilla. He recalled walking for 24 hours across the desert with no food or water to illegally cross the border in 1992. He has since become a legal American citizen, learned English and worked his way up to herdsman at Heller Farms.

For Vicente Ramirez, a feedlot manager at T&K Red River Dairy in Stanfield, Arizona, the dairy industry has provided him with job security.

“We like the work on dairies because it is year-round,” he said.

Unlike the seasonal work of picking grapes that first brought Ramirez to the United States, the dairy provides a regular paycheck that has allowed him to build a life for his family and raise his three children here during the last 26 years.

Highest values: God and family
When it comes to values of the Hispanic culture, priority is placed on God and family. This is evident through the major events that Hispanics celebrate. According to Heller, religious holidays are of high importance. Christmas, Easter and All Saints Day are some that are shared on the American calendar.

In addition, the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in November is similar in concept to Memorial Day, and Mother’s Day calls for special celebration as well. Occasions such as baptisms, birthdays and weddings are large events filled with food, music and extended family.

“Hispanics are the most family-oriented group you will ever meet,” Heller added.

When an employer shows interest in how a worker’s family, a stronger bond is formed.

“When you ask about our personal lives, it makes us feel good,” said Ramirez.

The tight-knit nature of Hispanic families and communities thrives on socialization. Concerts, dances and soccer leagues provide opportunities for interaction, which is something Heller pointed out as being a part of keeping employees happy and on a dairy for a long time.

Workplace dynamics
Both Ramirez and Escamilla cited communication as key to good employee relations on dairies. Clear expectations and goals, training, and opportunities for advancement are all important to employees.

“Owners need to listen to us and help us understand what they want us to do,” said Ramirez. “Hispanic employees have goals just like any other employees.”

One way to achieve this is through vertical integration, explained Heller. For example, training a worker to specialize in hoof trimming, ultrasounding, breeding or DA surgeries can save the dairy money while giving the employee an opportunity to climb the ladder.

While offering housing to workers or hiring Hispanic consultants may seem like a considerate effort on the part of the employer, Heller cautioned against these gestures. Providing housing for some workers but not others can lead to tension among employees. He recommends offering a housing allowance instead.

When it comes to consultants, employees may feel threatened by a fellow Hispanic who is educated. However, they are more likely to respond to a non-Hispanic expert, like a veterinarian. Further, Hispanic employees may not respond well to Hispanic female managers, as the cultural role of the woman is to not work outside of the home.

When it comes to public policy and the future of the dairy workforce, Ramirez called producers to take action.

“Dairymen need to push the government to have immigration law passed,” he said. “You need us, and we need you.”

This article was originally written for the Vita Plus Dairy Summit 2013 e-news.

Category: Business and economics
Employee management
Starting Strong - Calf Care