New Studies Detail Health Risks to Vermont’s Migrant Dairy Farm Workers

In many ways, the bucolic image of lush farmlands dotted with cows defines Vermont. What many people may not realize is how big a role migrant farm workers play in keeping those farms running, or the price many pay in health. High stress, for starters. A new UVM study finds that more than a third of migrant farm workers in Vermont’s dairy industry report debilitating stress. 

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This is not your average work-day stress. It’s what doctors call “clinically significant” stress. It’s the kind of stress that makes it hard to function, that makes you physically sick. It interferes with your capacity to survive, let alone thrive. 

Unique Stressors Face Migrant Workers

Julia Doucet sees it firsthand. She’s an outreach nurse at the Open Door clinic in Middlebury. Her patients include many Latinx who work i n Addison County’s sprawling dairy farms. She recently told Vt Digger about a man who came in with severe headache pain, weakness and fatigue, a racing heart, and tingling in his arms. Only later did she learn that the man’s daughter in Latin America had been kidnapped and was being held ransom on threat of death.

It can be hard to comprehend what a migrant farm worker has been through just to be able to be in Vermont to work. Many risked their lives to come here through a tortuous journey. They’ve arrived in a vastly different culture than their own, brown people in a 95 percent white state. Most only speak Spanish, presenting language barriers in every aspect of life. They face discrimination and racism from subtle to outright. Many are undocumented, and live with the constant fear of deportation.

Spanish-Speaking Counselor Offers One-on-One, Group Support

Cecilia Hayes sees the effects of these stressors in her work as a Support Counselor with COVID Support Vt. She too came to this state speaking only Spanish, knowing no one, seeking the opportunity for a better life. She earned a degree in social work while raising a boy as a single mom. She went into social work because of what she herself has been through as an immigrant here. Now she works with migrant farm workers and the broader Latinx community in Vermont, helping them find ways to cope with the sometimes extreme circumstances of their lives. To not only survive, but to thrive. 

Hayes works with local organizations serving the Latinx community to provide group and one-on-one counseling. She is leading a new Spanish support and activity group at COVID Support VT starting August 26. (Register here.) Contact her through What’s App at 1-802-304-0562.

Meet Cecilia, COVID Support VT’s Spanish-speaking counselor in this video:

“Migrant workers face stresses that most of us can’t even imagine,” says Hayes. Language and cultural barriers compound those stressors. Not having grown up in the American system, not having family here, and having limited resources can leave people feeling isolated and lonely. Asking for help may not come naturally. Finding a therapist or clinician who speaks Spanish is a formidable barrier to better healthcare.  “Just finding someone who speaks their language can be a huge relief in trying to get care,” Hayes says. 

¿Necesita hablar? Comuníquese con Cecilia en What’s App en 1-802-304-0562.

‘Disproportionate Burden of Disease’ for Migrant Workers

It’s no wonder that 36.5 percent of migrant farm workers reported high levels of stress when UVM economics professor Daniel Baker surveyed them. And that was before Covid hit. 

“While Latino farmworkers provide invaluable contributions to the economy and food systems, they face a disproportionate burden of disease. Previous research found that stress was the strongest explanatory factor for both poor mental and physical health among farmworkers. Stress has been related to high levels of anxiety and depression and can increase the risk of farm-related accidents.”

~ Daniel Baker, Jini Kades, Jane Kolodinsky, Emily H. Belarmino in J Immigr Minor Health. 2021 Jul 5. 

The authors asked migrant farm workers questions about their experiences in Vermont and the stressors they face. In 2016, 173 workers responded. A second survey in 2019 included 66 workers. In the second survey, the top-ranked cause of stress overall was difficulty being away from family members. Immigration concerns were consistently among the top five stressors in both surveys.  Language and communication difficulties also ranked high in both, as did feelings of isolation or loneliness.

Image Source: Research findings relevant to complications facing Latino dairy farmworkers in Vermont. A presentation to the Vermont Senate Agricultural Committee, April 23, 2021, by Daniel Baker Ph.D.

Occupational and Health Hazards Compound Stress

A separate study by a different group at UVM documented a wide range of occupational and health hazards among Vermont’s migrant dairy workers. Published in April, the study analyzed surveys and interviews conducted by a Burlington-based advocacy group, Migrant Justice, and interviewed relevant community organizations. Farm workers reported high rates of harm and injury on the job, driven by difficult working conditions and little training. Communal housing is common, and often inadequate. Two-thirds of workers reported one or more mental health concerns, including feeling stressed (64%) and feeling depressed (40%).

“This population is integral to the food system, image, and economy of Vermont, and yet they face considerable inequities stemming from long hours at work, exposure to chemicals, bioaerosols, and antibiotics. They receive inadequate health and safety training, are not provided adequate health and safety equipment, resulting in accidents, injuries from animals and machinery, and suffer other health outcomes ranging from respiratory issues, headaches, vision problems, musculoskeletal pain, depression, and stress.”

~ Bindu Panikkar and Mary-Kate Barrett, in Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Apr; 18(7): 3675

Both studies were conducted before the coronavirus pandemic, which has heightened health inequities for marginalized populations and communities of color. The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) recently convened a workshop to explore “how the pandemic has created, revealed, and exacerbated long-standing racial and ethnic disparities in behavioral health care.” Their report documents the extent of the disparities and presents a way forward to create health equity. 

The director of the National Institute for Mental Health, Joshua Gordon, addressed the inequities in his keynote address recently for the 2021 NAMICon mental health conference. “The adverse impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are not felt equally throughout society,” he said. Racial differences in suicide rates and mental health treatments that fail in Latinx populations are examples. Gordon underscored the need for culturally sensitive care in communities of color. 

For more on health disparities, read our blog: Covid Reveals Health Equity Shortcomings, Exacerbates Health Disparities.

Find Multilingual Resources, Help and Connections at

COVID Support VT counselor Cecilia Hayes offers services in Spanish, Monday-Friday, 8am-4pm. Each call is confidential and free. You can call or text Cecilia via WhatsApp at 1-802-304-0562.

Meet Cecilia on vimeo and find out how to connect for help in Spanish.Find one-click translation to 100 languages of almost everything on the website, plus Multilingual Resources & downloadable materials in 10 languages common to Vermont’s immigrant and refugee communities.

Blog written by Brenda Patoine on behalf of VCN/Vermont Care Partners for COVID Support Vermont, a grant funded by FEMA and the Vermont Department of Mental Health

Need to Talk?

Call 2-1-1 (in Vermont) for assistance.

In Crisis? 

If you or someone you care for is experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can: call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-825; text VT to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor 24/7; connect with your local community mental health center for 24/7 support. 

Find Help

Find resources and tools for coping with stress at

One-click translation to 100 languages of most everything on the website, plus Multilingual Resources.

Find your local community mental health center by visiting Vermont Care Partners.

COVID Support VT is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency, managed by Vermont’s Department of Mental Health, and administered by Vermont Care Partners, a statewide network of 16 non-profit community-based agencies providing mental health, substance use, and intellectual and developmental disability services and supports. 

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