HOUSING INVESTIGATION

A CREW of migrant farmworkers with cantaloupes they picked on July 4, near Kennett, in sourthern Missouri.

SKY CHADDE

Midwest Center for Investigative

Reporting & Columbia Missourian

KENNETT – Missouri’s process of inspecting migrant farmworkers’ housing is riddled with holes and abused easily, interviews and documents obtained by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and the Columbia Missourian show.

Last summer, the process led to an incident where more than 100 farmworkers in the U.S. legally on H-2A visas lived in horrid conditions, worked on empty stomachs and endured threats. 

H-2A workers’ temporary legal status carries the promise of adequate housing, which the federal government leaves up to the states to ensure. But the inspection process, does not cover every place H-2A workers live and relies too much on the word of employers, who face little to no punishment for violations. In Missouri, the process has missed deficiencies for years that left workers in unsanitary housing.

The U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees the H-2A program, investigated the incident last summer in Kennett, eventually suing the workers’ employer.

Workers lived in a cramped and dirty motel teeming with bedbugs, then a former county jail with questionable plumbing that used to be a haunted house. Barbed wire laced the jail’s fence. Some stayed in two houses with trash piled high inside and out; one had a leaking toilet and the other had a broken refrigerator.

While motels and rental housing are exempt from inspections, states are required to look at employer-owned housing before H-2A workers arrive. But the former jail was not inspected. Despite an application to federal authories to house people there, the workers’ employer told the inspector no one would live there.

The two houses were also approved, though at least one federal violation was missed. Two months later, investigators would find “unsafe, deteriorating and unsanitary” conditions, court documents state.

The Missouri Department of Economic Development, which oversees the state’s H-2A program, insisted the houses were livable during inspection. In response to a list of detailed questions, the workers’ employer, Jorge Marin, said his intention was to “comply with all requirements.”

The government dismissed the lawsuit against Marin. This year, he has operations in Florida and Indiana, where he received a $1,650 fine for housing and other violations in 2015. He has a crew in Missouri this summer, too.

The issue

Lax inspections are a result of too little funding, which is a problem across the country, advocates said.

Regulating the H2-A program is largely left to individual states. Each year, more and more people come to the U.S. on H-2A visas, but the federal grants that states receive to administer their programs have stagnated. The situation, advocates said, has left states hard-pressed to perform all their duties under the program, of which housing is a small part.

Between 2006 and 2016, the number of H-2A workers who came to the country increased by 180 percent, from about 59,000 to about 166,000, U.S. Department of Labor statistics show. During the same time period, the total amount of grant money to states only increased with the rate of inflation, from $12 million to about $14 million.

The number of workers increased to about 240,000 in 2018, the latest year available, but the total amount of grant money has remained about $14 million for fiscal 2019.

One state has recognized the problem: Washington received $400,000 in federal grants to run its H2-A program and lawmakers this year considered a bill that would charge farmers a fee for every H-2A worker they hire. The original plan aimed to raise $2 million annually to help the program cover all its responsibilities, including housing inspections. But the fees plan ended and lawmakers passed a bill creating a committee to review the situation’s issues. 

In recent years, Missouri has received about $150,000 in federal grants. The state puts none of its own money toward the program, so grants cover two state employees’ salaries and all related costs, a Missouri Department of Economic Development spokeswoman stated.

The employees’ duties include processing employers’ requests for H-2A workers, surveying employers to set the workers’ wages and inspecting housing. Inspections often mean driving for hours – to and from – rural parts of the state.

The result has been inspections that missed federal violations.

The law states each worker must have at least 50 square feet of space if sleeping in a single bed or 40 square feet if sleeping in a bunk bed. Missouri inspected 280 between 2015 and 2018 and found no location deficient.

But between 2015 and 2018 about 23 percent of workers’ housing that Missouri inspected did not meet the sleeping space requirements, based on the dimensions provided in the inspections and the number of people living there at the time, according to an analysis by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

Missing space requirements is “very worrisome,” Greg Schell, a Florida lawyer who has represented migrant workers, said.

“If they’re not catching that,” he said, “it does make you wonder if they’re catching anything else.”

Presented with the findings, state officials said the issue would be addressed.

“Inspectors measured rooms upon first inspection of the residence, and these measurements were used in future inspections of the same properties,” the statement said. “This practice, which is not excluded by federal law, allowed miscalculations to be carried forward over multiple years. We’re improving our process and addressing this issue with staff to ensure that the square footage of rooms is properly measured and calculated for each residence going forward.”

In April, after the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting told the state about the deficiencies, Missouri approved Marin’s two houses for workers again, but with the appropriate amount of space.

The jail

Months before workers arrived, Marin started making plans to use the former jail. In mid-March 2018, he contacted Metz Skelton, an engineer in Kennett for decades, about redesigning the jail. Marin finalized the jail’s purchase April 4. He learned the building had problems.

After surveying the jail, Skelton sent Marin a letter stating the jail had “serious issues with the existing plumbing.” The kitchens and bathrooms lacked equipment. He could not verify the status of the electricity or H/VAC units.

“It is our considered opinion that thousands of dollars in renovation costs will be involved and at this time do not anticipate the facility could be ready for any occupancy for several months,” Skelton wrote in the letter, which he shared.

On July 17, the city issued an occupancy permit for the jail and Marin moved workers from the motel into the jail. They would stay for about three weeks, until a judge ordered their removal.  

In a response to questions about the Marin case, the state said processes would change to “ensure additional record keeping in instances where employers indicate they do not plan to use housing listed” on the worker request form.

The Motel

States are not required to inspect motels and rental housing.

In 2016, a Florida watermelon harvester paid a Kennett man to find apartments for about two dozen Mexican H2-A.

The motel where Marin kept workers before moving them into the jail also had space problems. Workers slept four to six people to a room. Their luggage made a tight fit more cramped. Some shared beds, and some slept on the floor and in bathtubs. They rotated who got the mattresses.

“We were stacked on each other,” a worker on Marin’s crew said.

Workers said bedbugs infested the mattresses.

After the DOL’s lawsuit, Marin put workers in a motel across town called the 84 West Motel, where Marin originally told state regulators the crew would live. When the large barrack is not full of watermelon harvesters in the summer, the owners, Maria and Juan Toscano, rent their facility to hunters who come to search the Bootheel’s wetlands for ducks.

To satisfy regulators, Marin made a $2,000 down payment at the motel. Per contract terms, keeping workers there would have cost him about $140,000. Zillow listed the former jail at $62,500.

The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit, online newsroom offering investigative and enterprise coverage of agribusiness, Big Ag and related issues through data analysis, visualizations, in-depth reports and interactive web tools. Find them online at www.investigatemidwest.org.

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