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Dairy worker housing goes uninspected. The result is horrific conditions on some farms

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Chis Waits
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Creative Commons/NCPR

Five years ago, a seventeen-year-old girl left her home in Guatemala to pursue a work opportunity in central New York. She wanted to earn money to support her parents and two of her sisters. Her brother had immigrated to the United States before her, and he'd found a job on a dairy farm. He was able to get her hired there, too. When she arrived, he walked her through the farmer's land, back to the tiny building where he lived with a few other workers. She couldn't believe what she was seeing.

She recalled saying, "I'm going to live in this house?"

By the time she left that farm, she'd spent a year living with rats, cockroaches, and bedbugs that she said made her skin break out in hives.

NCPR granted her anonymity because she's not authorized to work in the United States and fears being deported.

Latino immigrants who work on the North Country’s dairy farms—and the dairy farmers who hire them—live in legal limbo. Work on dairy farms happens throughout the year, and there’s no year-round agricultural visa program, so many dairy farmers hire immigrants who are not authorized to work in the United States. Farmers say local people don't want the jobs. The work is dirty, repetitive, and physically taxing.

So hundreds, perhaps thousands of dairy farm workers exist in the shadows. Often, they live on the farms where they work, in housing provided by the farmers. And there's no regular government oversight of the quality of that housing.

Some workers live in perfectly good places, but others find themselves in housing barely fit for a human being.

"The walls were alive with cockroaches", insufficient heat

When the young woman from Guatemala lived on that first farm, a retired couple who volunteered with a local community action program would visit twice a week to bring food and clothing—Nancy Fefer and her husband Marty.

"The walls were alive with cockroaches," Marty Fefer said. "The insects and rodents were throughout the [space], on both sides. I mean, so much so that you didn't want to sit down."

There were other problems, too. In the winter, the heater didn't work.

"The heater didn't work in the wintertime," the worker from Guatemala said. "You were freezing. You had to wear so many socks and so many sweaters."

The farmer came to fix the heater, but then it started blowing black smoke into the building, the worker said.

She and her companions did not have a refrigerator. Insects and feces from rodents would be in their food.

She stayed for a year. Now, she's 23 years old, and she's been working on farms in New York for half a decade. During that time, no one from the government has ever come to inspect her housing, she said.

"Never in the time that I've worked in dairy, never did I see any supervision come to see how the immigrants were living," she said.

A gap in farm worker housing oversight

Under New York's Farm Laborers Fair Labor Practices Act, local health departments conduct annual inspections of housing for all seasonal or temporary workers, including immigrants who hold H-2A temporary agricultural worker visas. Those inspections check for compliance with the state Department of Health's Part 15 regulations, which require things like working heat, adequate floor space, functioning windows, and pest control.

But this Guatemalan worker and her companions did not get annual inspections of their housing because they were not seasonal or temporary workers. They were there year-round.

Technically, workers can complain to their local health department about housing issues, but various obstacles can stand in the way of their doing so.

Jessica Maxwell, director of the Workers' Center of Central New York, a farmworker advocacy group, said workers who live on farms often lack private mailboxes, cellphone service plans, and transportation. Many do not speak English. For those who speak indigenous languages, Spanish is a second language, too. Some do not know the name of the town or county where they live, or even the farm where they work, she said. Furthermore, their time off is limited.

And many fear deportation, she said, so they avoid drawing attention.

Maxwell said substandard housing is not uncommon on dairy farms. "We do see a lot of issues with overcrowding. Some of the other common things we see are, you know, houses that aren't weatherized appropriately," Maxwell said. "In the worst case scenarios, [we see] workers who are really being housed in buildings that are really outbuildings—buildings that are designed for storing equipment or animals that really shouldn't be housing workers at all."

Housing quality left to farms and their workers

Richard Stup is an agricultural workforce specialist at Cornell. He said housing on dairy farms varies widely.

"I've been in housing that's excellent and relatively new, and I've been in housing that's adequate, you know, it's okay," Stup said. "And I've been in housing that's just, you know, rotten."

Farmers can get up to $200,000 per year from New York's Farmworker Housing Program to build or improve their facilities. Stup said there's actually been a construction boom in recent years. A lot of dairy farmers have made bunkhouse-style living spaces for their employees. When those structures are first built, Stup said they do have to meet regular building codes, but the building codes do not regulate conditions after the buildings have been approved and people have moved in.

"There is no particular state or federal code that governs permanent housing for these many different dairy farm employees that are in housing of one sort or another," Stup said.

So Stup said farmers and workers must share the responsibility of keeping the spaces livable.

"It's totally up to the farmer on how well they manage that facility, and how good of a communication system that they have established with the residents in that facility," Stup said.

But communication can be difficult when workers have very little leverage because they're in the country illegally.

Lazaro Alvarez is from Mexico City. He came to New York State several years ago, and started working on a dairy farm in the North Country. He said the housing there was overcrowded, dirty, and had a pest problem. And he spoke up about it.

"Fifteen days after I arrived, there was a meeting between workers and bosses," Alvarez said. "I said there were a lot of cockroaches, and my coworkers told me I shouldn't have said that because they were gonna fire me. And I said 'I don't care. If they fire me, they fire me.'"

Lazaro Alvarez.
Photo: Lazaro Alvarez
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NCPR
Lazaro Alvarez.

Fortunately, Alvarez said, he was not fired. Instead, the farmers fumigated the housing and thanked him for telling them about the cockroach infestation. For him, saying something worked. But not every farmer is as responsive.

The female worker from Guatemala said she spoke up about her housing problems, too. She said the farmer told her he couldn't afford to fix them.

A path to legal, year-round dairy work?

A new bill moving through Congress would create an option for immigrants to work on dairy farms legally. The Farm Workforce Modernization Act could lead to dairy farm housing inspections by adding permanent agricultural workers to the H-2A visa program.

The New York Farm Bureau, a lobbying organization for the state's farmers, is in support of the bill.

"It would expand the H-2A guest worker visa program to include year-round workers. So their housing, too, would be inspected and subject to all the federal housing regulations," said Steve Ammerman, a farm bureau spokesperson. "There's a real need in this country to reform our ag labor system. And we've been an advocate for immigration reform for more than two decades now."

The farm bureau supports adding year-round workers to the H-2A program despite the new hurdles it would create for dairy farmers, like having to pass regular housing inspections.

"Having access to a reliable labor force would be a great thing for our farms, our farm workers, and for our food supply," Ammerman said. "We're talking about food security here and that's national security and this would be one of the costs of doing business."

Some farmworker advocacy groups, like the Workers' Center of Central New York and the Worker Justice Center of New York, oppose the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. WJCNY organizer Emma Kreyche said giving the agriculture industry access to a larger immigrant labor pool by expanding the H-2A program would not incentivize farmers to improve conditions because workers within the program have so little power.

"Workers are tied to a single employer and can be easily blacklisted and replaced if they speak about any sort of violations or problems with their working conditions," Kreyche said. "The entire H-2A labor system, historically, has been rife with labor abuses."

Kreyche said the best way for the state to address poor housing conditions on dairy farms would be to conduct regular inspections of all agricultural worker housing, regardless of workers' seasonal or year-round status.

"This is the United States for us."

The young worker who came to join her brother told NCPR she is part of the industry, and she wants to know why the government doesn't do more to help people like her.

"The animals live better than we do. Than we do. And we are part of the economy of the United States. And there's no law to help us," she said.

She's in a better situation now, living and working on a different farm. The housing there is not perfect, she said, but it's better. She doesn't want anyone else to go through what she did.

Back on that day five years ago when she arrived on that first farm, there was nowhere for her to sleep. She remembers how her brother told her not to worry. He slept on the floor so she could have the bed.

She said seeing her brother sleeping on the floor, wrapped in sweaters to keep warm, changed her perspective on the American dream.

She remembers thinking, "Esto es Estados Unidos para nosotros," she said. "This is the United States for us."

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that all temporary and seasonal farmworker housing is required to be inspected under New York State law, not just housing for those temporary and seasonal farmworkers who hold H-2A visas.

Lucy Grindon produced this story as part of the America Amplified initiative, which uses community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. America Amplified is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.