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What You Need to Know If You’re Hurt While Working on a Wisconsin Dairy Farm

ProPublica spoke to lawyers, health care providers, government officials and others to help workers understand their rights if they’re injured on the job.

Illustration by Edel Rodriguez, special to ProPublica

ProPublica spoke to lawyers, health care providers, government officials and others to help workers understand their rights if they’re injured on the job.

This story was originally published by ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism. Sign up for ProPublica Illinois’ newsletter to get weekly updates written by its journalists.

This guide will be released in Spanish in several formats to make this information more widely accessible. If you want to receive printed booklets that you or your organization can share with dairy workers in Wisconsin, or if you want to be notified when we post related videos on TikTok and YouTube, sign up here.

We are reporters at ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news organization. Over the past two years, we have reported on the lives of dairy workers in Wisconsin and the dangers they face on the job.

Dairy workers are excluded from many state and federal legal protections that help other workers. As a result, if they are injured on the job, they often face obstacles to getting medical care or the time needed to recover.

Many dairy workers have seen relatives or co-workers lose their jobs and get kicked out of farm housing after an injury. Others have ended up with disfigured bodies and massive medical debt.

Many are undocumented. They worry about being deported if they speak up about an injury.

We heard these concerns repeatedly in our interviews with more than 100 immigrant workers. We know people often feel hopeless.

But while there are real challenges, our reporting has shown us that for some workers, there can be a path toward getting treatment after an injury. Here is some of what we found:

  • Workers who are injured on larger farms have more protections. This is because of an insurance system called workers’ compensation. You can benefit even if you are undocumented.
  • The workers’ compensation system is complex and difficult to navigate. Employers sometimes discourage workers from filing claims. Getting a lawyer can be critical, especially if you have a permanent disability.
  • Workers who are injured on smaller farms usually can’t access workers’ compensation. The only way to compel an employer to cover medical costs is to file a lawsuit. These lawsuits can be extremely difficult to win. Because of that, attorneys may not want to take your case.
  • You may be able to access free or low-cost medical care. Ask about hospital charity, free clinics and a Wisconsin insurance plan called BadgerCare Plus.

Few of the workers we’ve interviewed understood their rights after an injury. This guide is our attempt to explain your options, as limited as they are. We also want to answer questions that many workers have asked based on situations they’ve found themselves in. It is based on conversations with workers, attorneys, health care providers, community advocates, interpreters, researchers and farmers. It covers what you can do before you get to a farm, how to navigate the workers’ compensation system, and your options if you get injured on a farm that doesn’t have workers’ compensation.

The guide is especially focused on the workers’ compensation system because it is one of the few areas where injured dairy workers have a right to medical care. We know this system has limitations and isn’t available to everybody. However many workers have found it to be useful, particularly if they get help from an attorney.

This guide does not provide legal or medical advice. We strongly encourage you to talk to a lawyer or a doctor about your situation. We’ll point you to some resources in the last section.

We welcome your thoughts and questions. Please feel free to write us an email or call us by phone or WhatsApp. Thank you.

Maryam Jameel: or 630-885-6883

Melissa Sanchez: or 872-444-0011

What to Know Before You Start Working on Dairy Farms

Farming in general has one of the highest fatality rates of industries in the U.S. Almost every year in Wisconsin, dairy farmers or their employees die on the job, crushed under tractors or drowned in manure lagoons or trampled by cows.

Injuries are even more common. But they are not always reported. That makes it impossible to accurately compare the dangers on dairy farms with other types of jobs. In our reporting, however, most workers told us they had been injured on the job. “If you haven’t been injured,” one former worker said, “then you haven’t really worked on a farm.” Cows can be unpredictable; workers told us they’d been kicked, stepped on and smashed against barn walls by the 1,500-pound animals.

We have spoken to several workers who lost fingers inside of machinery, a man whose legs were crushed by heavy metal gates and a woman who got trampled and thrown over a fence by a bull. Other workers have chronic pain from the repetitive motions of attaching tubes to cow teats hundreds of times a day.

In the winter, temperatures in Wisconsin can drop below zero, with high winds, snow and ice. Many workers have suffered serious injuries after they slipped on ice-covered concrete floors. Others have suffered frostbite.

Medical and public health officials said some workers develop infections and other issues from their exposure to animal feces and other harmful substances common on farms.

How can you find out whether a particular farm is a safe place to work?

No government agency rates dairy farms on safety. In fact, even when workers die or are injured, dairy farms are not always inspected.

There is no guarantee that you will be safe on any farm. But farms can take steps to protect their workers and make sure they receive the medical treatment they need after an injury. One of the best ways to learn about safety issues on a farm is by talking to current or former employees.

Some questions you can ask:

  • What kind of training do workers get when they are hired?

  • Did you feel that the training was enough to help you do your job safely?

  • What is the pace of work? Are there enough workers to do the job?

  • Can cows easily kick you as you milk them?

  • Can you describe a recent injury that happened to you or a coworker and how the supervisor responded? Did that worker get medical care or time off to heal?

  • Do you know whether the farm has workers’ compensation insurance?

  • How do the supervisors treat you? Do they speak to you respectfully?

We have also found that local Latino grocery stores can be good places to learn more about specific farms. Workers cash their checks at these businesses and often share information about work conditions with the clerks and owners. Ask them about a farm’s reputation and if there is anything they think you should know.

One sign that a farm may be a good place to work is if workers stay there for a long time.

Are farms required to help pay for a worker’s medical care after an injury?

The answer depends on how many workers the farm employs.

In general, if the farm has six or more employees, it should have a type of insurance called workers’ compensation that is supposed to cover these costs. Workers’ compensation is different from medical insurance. (If you are counting how many workers a farm has, don’t count the farm owners and their close relatives who work on the farm.)

If a farm has fewer than six employees, it does not have to have workers’ compensation under state rules. Workers who are hurt at these farms have only one legal avenue to get help paying for medical care. They may be able to file a lawsuit. (See the “Resources other than workers’ compensation” section for more information.)

How can I learn if a farm has workers’ compensation insurance?

You can ask your employer or look it up yourself online. If the farm has workers’ compensation insurance, it should be listed here: But the site, run by the Wisconsin Compensation Rating Bureau, is only available in English.

You’ll need to know the farm’s name or its address to do a search. If you don’t find the farm listed, you can email the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, which oversees the workers’ compensation system, at, or call 608-266-3046. If you speak Spanish, you can ask for an interpreter.

I don’t know the name of my employer. How do I find that?

You may know a farm by a nickname. To find out a farm’s official name, look at the upper left-hand corner of your paycheck, above the address. Or you can check the main entrance, where many farms have signs with their name.

I Was Injured on a Large Farm That Has Workers’ Compensation. What Do I Need to Know?

State officials and lawyers say you should tell your employer right away that you got hurt and get the medical treatment you need. The Department of Workforce Development said any delays may hurt your workers’ compensation case.

Gabriel Manzano Nieves, a workers’ compensation attorney in Madison, said many people he works with don’t want to report what seems like a minor injury. He said he’s had clients who thought at first that they had a sore shoulder or a sprain. Weeks later a doctor told them that they had a permanent injury. He added: “Later their employer might say, ‘How do I know this didn’t happen at home?’ Reporting time is really important for proving it happened at work.”

How is workers’ compensation supposed to work?

  1. After you report your injury, your employer is supposed to file a claim with their insurance company within seven days. (Your employer can be fined if they delay filing a claim on purpose.) Your medical provider — usually that’s your doctor — can also file a claim for you.
  2. Then the insurer is supposed to report this information to the state.
  3. Once the claim is filed, the insurer will usually send you a letter or call and ask for your permission to get your medical records related to the injury.
  4. The insurer will look at your records to decide whether to accept the claim and pay the medical costs. The company may also send you to an independent doctor or nurse who may make a different decision about your injury and treatment.
  5. You may be entitled to some of your pay if you need days off work to recover from your injury. You should get a check from your employer’s insurance carrier, usually 14 days after your injury or illness, though lawyers say it can take longer.

What should I tell medical providers?

Explain how you got injured and that it happened at work. Otherwise you may not get workers’ compensation. State officials recommend that you say this before you get treated. Give the name of the farm and the workers’ compensation insurer, if you know it, so that the hospital or doctor’s office can bill the insurer. Attorneys suggested that if you get any medical bills, you send them to the insurer.

Be open and detailed about your pain so your doctor can accurately assess your health. We know some workers sometimes don’t tell their doctors everything because they are embarrassed, they want to seem strong, they fear the cost of treatment, or for other reasons. Many other workers say their employers have told them not to tell the hospital that their injury was work-related in order to avoid filing a workers’ compensation claim. In some cases, employers promise to pay the medical bills out of pocket.

You have the right to choose your own doctor and to be alone with them during your visits; that means your employer does not have a right to be in the room if you do not want them there. Several attorneys said you can also ask your doctor if they would recommend any restrictions on how or how much you work, such as limiting how much weight you carry or how many hours a day you work.

I’m being told by my doctor that I can return to work, but I don’t think I have completely healed. What can I do?

The Department of Workforce Development encourages workers to try to return to work anyway. “You will be in a stronger position to obtain additional benefits if you attempted to return than if you refused an offer of work,” state officials said. But if you have work restrictions, tell your employer you are willing to work within them, attorneys said. And if you feel any pain, tell your supervisor. Your employer should report it to their insurance company. Also, see a doctor to reassess your health, attorneys said.

I’m undocumented. Does my immigration status affect my eligibility for workers’ compensation?

No. In Wisconsin, your immigration status does not affect your eligibility. Nearly every part of the Wisconsin Workers’ Compensation Act applies to workers regardless of their immigration status.

“Whether you’re in the country legally or not, it’s not relevant,” said Douglas Phebus, an employment attorney who has represented dozens of dairy workers in Wisconsin.

However, he said workers have told him their bosses threatened to get them deported after they asked about workers’ compensation. “That’s ridiculous but it’s scary,” Phebus said.

Deporting undocumented immigrants who are not a threat to national security or public safety is not a priority for the Biden administration, according to official guidance.

The state’s Department of Workforce Development said it does not share information with federal immigration authorities.

Many undocumented immigrants work under fake names and Social Security numbers. Martha Burke, a workers’ compensation attorney, said that when she fills out workers’ compensation paperwork, she often includes both names that workers use. State officials said workers don’t have to provide a Social Security number.

Does workers’ compensation help pay for my lost wages after an injury?

If you need less than three days to recover, you won’t be paid for that time off of work. State law only allows payment to start on the fourth day off from work. You could get paid two-thirds of your wages.

What happens if the insurance company denies my claim?

At this stage — as medical bills may be piling up — many workers and advocates suggest talking to an attorney.

You can also call the Department of Workforce Development’s workers’ compensation division to discuss problems with a claim. (See the resources page at the end of this guide to find this contact information.) You can ask state officials to review your claim and try to resolve your dispute with the insurance company, or ask for a formal hearing. The vast majority of workers who ask for hearings have attorneys, state officials said.

Am I entitled to compensation if my injury leads to a permanent disability?

You may qualify for other benefits. How much depends in part on how much a doctor thinks your injury will affect your ability to work and earn money in the future.

Doctors might not try to determine if your injury is permanent or note that in your file unless you ask them to. You have to be your own advocate, said Marisol González Castillo, a personal injury attorney who used to specialize in workers’ compensation.

To get permanent disability benefits, you may need help from an attorney. We spoke to two workers whose fingers were amputated in farm accidents. Both got their initial medical bills paid but didn’t get any permanent disability compensation. Years later, each of them wondered if they should have looked for an attorney to help them make a claim.

State law gives workers six years after their injury or most recent workers’ compensation payment to file for permanent disability benefits. (If your injury happened before March 2, 2016, you have 12 years after the date of injury to file a claim.)

Somebody I know died at work. Is their family entitled to any benefits?

The dead worker’s dependents, usually their spouse or children, may be able to qualify for death benefits and burial expenses from the workers’ compensation insurer. Employers are supposed to report deaths to the state within one day.

What if the farm where I work has six or more employees but doesn’t have workers’ compensation insurance?

You can file a claim to request benefits through the state’s Uninsured Employers Fund (UEF). You must call (608) 266-3046 to ask for an application. There is an option for Spanish speakers. You will be asked to give them certain documentation, such as copies of check stubs and medical records.

Some attorneys said you may want to collect information to help the state confirm the actual number of workers on the farm; this could include the names of your coworkers or copies of work schedules.

What You Can Do Outside of the Workers’ Compensation System

Thousands of farm workers are excluded from the state’s workers’ compensation system because the farms where they work are too small to be required to have insurance. In addition, many workers who get injured on large farms told us their employers refused to file a claim for them. The workers said they didn’t get medical care because they were afraid their employer would retaliate against them.

Given this reality, we wanted to explain what your options are, even though there aren’t very many, and point you to resources that could help you.

What should I know if I get injured on a small farm?

You are not automatically entitled to get help from your employer. This means you could end up with thousands of dollars in medical bills. Hospitals can sue you over unpaid medical debt, which could lead to a court-ordered garnishment of your wages. Garnishment is when money is automatically taken out of your paycheck to pay down your debt.

We know of several farmers who have paid out of pocket for their workers’ medical costs. So you should ask for help, several workers and attorneys said. But the only legal avenue to get your employer to pay your medical bills is to file a personal injury lawsuit.

Given their limited protections, workers who get injured on small farms are in a difficult situation, said Matthew Keifer, a doctor who specializes in occupational safety and is the former director of the National Farm Medicine Center. He said workers should think about finding a job on a larger farm where they would have workers’ compensation. “I know a lot of small farmers who are just wonderful people and would bend over backwards for their employees,” he said. “But there’s a lot that are not.”

What is a personal injury lawsuit?

These are lawsuits against the employer that ask for money for an injury that a worker thinks was the employers’ fault. Workers can also ask for more money for their pain and suffering.

But unlike in workers’ compensation cases, you have to prove that your employer was to blame for your injury. For example, you may have to show that your employer knew about a workplace hazard but did not fix it.

It can be hard to prove that someone was negligent, said Phebus, the employment attorney. He said he turns away about two-thirds of the dairy workers who call his office asking about personal injury lawsuits.

“People come to see us and they got hurt, but it wasn’t any particular act of negligence,” he said. “It’s just that farming is very dangerous.”

One worker who was injured by a bull on a small farm said she spoke to several attorneys before she found one who took her case.

Brian Laule, a personal injury attorney in River Falls, agreed that these cases can be difficult. But he said workers should not feel hopeless. Instead he encouraged workers to do their research and call several attorneys. “Run the situation by them,” he said. “You can reach out to attorneys for free and find out if you have any recourse.”

How can I find affordable medical care?

You may have to pay your own medical bills. Here are some programs that may help you:

  • Charity care: Many hospitals offer charity care programs that cover some or all medical bills for uninsured, low-income patients. You will likely need to fill out an application and share information about your income to find out if you qualify. Ask hospital staff if this is an option.
  • Payment plans: Several medical professionals and attorneys also recommended that workers ask about payment plans to avoid having their bills sent to collections. (This is when debt collectors try to make you pay and sometimes charge fees or interest that can make your debt bigger.) Many hospitals have “patient navigators” on staff who can help you apply for charity care or get on a payment plan.
  • BadgerCare Plus: This is a state public health insurance program for low-income residents. Undocumented immigrants who have children can get coverage in medical emergencies. (You can also qualify if you are pregnant.) You can call your local health agency to find out if you qualify. Visit this page and click on your county to find the phone number. If you speak Spanish, you can ask for an interpreter.
  • Free and low-cost clinics: We also know many workers have long-term pain from repetitive motion injuries, which is damage caused by doing the same actions, such as milking cows, over and over. You may be able to get medical care for these and other nonemergency injuries from “safety net” clinics for free or at a low cost. Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services maintains a page with the names, addresses and phone numbers of these clinics across the state. These facilities are not where you should go if you have serious or life-threatening injuries.
  • Urgent care clinics: Hospital emergency room visits can be extremely expensive, warned Aida Bise, the director of migrant and seasonal agricultural worker services for Family Health La Clinica, a community health clinic in Wautoma. For minor injuries, Bise says that workers should think about going to an urgent care clinic. “These are way cheaper,” she said.

One worker whose shoulder was injured when a cow slammed him against a wall on a small farm in 2022 said his employer refused to pay his hospital bills. As a result, the man, an undocumented and uninsured immigrant from Mexico, didn’t initially get the treatment he needed.

“It’s an immense, intolerable pain that’s hard to describe,” he said. “I just want to get the bills paid and recover.” More than five months passed before he got treatment; a community advocate helped him get surgery and other treatment covered by the hospital’s charity care.

Where can I report unsafe workplace conditions?

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is in charge of enforcing workplace safety laws in Wisconsin. It investigates deaths and injuries that happen on the job. You can file a confidential complaint online or call 1-800-321-6742.

Not every complaint will lead to an on-site inspection, which is when an OSHA official comes to the farm and checks for safety hazards. Once again, workers on small farms have fewer protections. If a farm has fewer than 11 employees, federal law may ban OSHA from investigating deaths, injuries or complaints. (Read our story about inconsistencies in OSHA’s work on small farms.)

What to know about retaliation after an injury

We have talked to many workers who were fired, kicked out of farm housing or threatened with deportation after an injury.

It can be hard for workers to challenge these actions. Each case is different, so you may want to talk to an attorney.

If you lose your housing: Your rights depend on whether you’re considered a tenant under Wisconsin law. You may be a tenant if you pay rent or if your landlord takes rent out of your wages.

  • If you are a tenant: You cannot be forcibly removed from housing without a court order. You have a very short amount of time when you can defend against an eviction in court; several attorneys said you should call an attorney quickly if you want to challenge the process or if you have been forced out without a court order.
  • Legal Action of Wisconsin has this explainer about tenants’ rights.
  • If you are not a tenant: Your rights are more limited. Some attorneys said they have negotiated more time for their clients to move out of farm housing. Again, call an attorney early to explore your options.


If you got fired: If you believe that you were fired because an injury left you with a disability, you may be able to file a discrimination complaint with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s equal rights division. Call 608-266-6860 to learn more; if you speak Spanish, you can request an interpreter. If you work on a farm with at least 15 employees, you may be able to file a discrimination charge with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Call 1-800-669-4000 to learn more; there is an option for Spanish speakers.

Separately, your employer can be penalized for refusing to hire you back after an injury because you filed a workers’ compensation claim.

We’ve talked to many workers who were not paid for their last week of work before getting fired. You can file a complaint with the Department of Workforce Development’s equal rights division to try to get your wages back. You can do that online here, though that form is not in Spanish. Or you can call 608-266-6860 and ask to speak to somebody in Spanish and have a complaint form mailed to you.

If you are worried about being deported: If you are in a dispute with your employer over unpaid wages or another workplace issue, or if you are cooperating with a labor-related investigation at your job, you may qualify for deferred action. This is a temporary protection from deportation. An OSHA investigation can count as a labor dispute. The agency would have to write a letter on your behalf to request deferred action. The U.S. Department of Labor has information about how this program works.

How to report retaliation: You have the right to file a whistleblower complaint with OSHA if you believe your employer retaliated against you for exercising certain rights, such as expressing concern over a workplace safety issue. You can file a complaint online or call 1-800-321-6742. These complaints are not confidential, which means your employer will know you filed one.

If two or more workers have come together to discuss collective concerns about their workplace — including safety or injuries — they have another protection against retaliation. They can file a complaint under the Wisconsin Employment Peace Act with the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission. Call 608-243-2424 to learn more; Spanish speakers need to request an interpreter. This process can be complex, even for people who don’t have a language barrier, several attorneys said; you may want to get an attorney or somebody who can help you file the complaint.

Other resources

There is no single place where you can get information about what to do if you get injured on a Wisconsin dairy farm. But we wanted to share a list of some of the resources we learned about that can be helpful.

Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development: This is the agency that oversees the state’s workers’ compensation system. You can call 608-266-1340 to speak to a specialist about problems with a claim, discuss late payments, ask for a hearing application, or talk about any other related issues. Spanish speakers can request an interpreter when they call.

Farmworker Project: This is part of the Legal Action of Wisconsin, a nonprofit organization that provides legal services to low-income residents. Attorneys can’t take every case but may be able to provide a consultation. They can also refer workers to bilingual private attorneys. You can call or text 920-279-7025 with questions. This phone number is also available on WhatsApp.