The bed bug infestation at the Pine Creek migrant labor camp in Holland, Michigan, had become so bad by June that Tomas and Leonor Pizana turned their bedroom lights on before going to sleep.
The couple’s primary language was Spanish. They spoke through a translator. Leonor, 65, said she initially began feeling tiny insects biting her sides and back just two days after moving into the temporary housing facility in March.
Tomas, 69, said the bed bugs that crawl throughout their makeshift wooden bedframe and full-sized mattress bite a little bit less when exposed to bright lights.
“We’re getting eaten,” Leonor said. “Everyone is having bites.”
The Pizanas are migrant farmworkers, laborers who travel long distances as part of their jobs and who cannot return to their permanent residences for weeks or months. Tomas and Leonor arrived in Michigan and moved into Pine Creek after traveling more than 1,500 miles from San Benito, Texas. They came to work for a floriculture company called Sawyer Nursery, which grows flowers and plants and employs between 100 and 150 migrant farmworkers every year. Leonor heard about job openings through a radio ad.
The Pizanas made the journey north with four others packed into a truck. They brought no possessions besides clothing, and stopped only for snacks, coffee and gas.
The work for Sawyer would not be difficult, the Pizanas thought. Leonor would stick labels and price tags on lime-colored hostas, pink Splendens and pale-yellow Moonbeams. Tomas would haul flowers to wherever they needed to go. The recruiter that hired them promised they would both get paid $9 per hour plus overtime.
“For us, the job in Michigan was something that seemed really good,” Leonor said. “It’s light work with plants, and I enjoy that.”
The recruiter also told the Pizanas that Sawyer Nursery would arrange housing at Pine Creek, a rustic four-building apartment complex built sometime around 1970 and owned by a blueberry company named Brookside Farms. He said all of the complex’s two-story apartment units would come with a furnished kitchen and that rent would cost $35 per week per person.
Tomas and Leonor had stayed in small trailers and “very humble housing” during their years working as migrant workers. They thought an apartment with its own stove and refrigerator sounded like a good deal.
“We were hoping for something better,” Leonor said.
Investigation reveals widespread housing problems
Migrant farmworkers like the Pizanas help plant, pick and process the fruits and vegetables that make their way into consumer households. Their work is so vital to the U.S. agribusiness industry that it is nearly impossible to name a food product sold at local grocery stores that did not first pass through a migrant worker’s hands.
“You really can’t,” said Lucy Benz-Rogers, an attorney with Farmworker Legal Services of Michigan. “Chips? No. Soda? No. Marshmallows? No. Even the most processed foods have ingredients that start from corn or something else.”
An estimated millions of seasonal and migrant farmworkers travel along the rural backroads and interstate highways of the U.S. each year. Some have long been U.S. residents and live in places like Texas, Florida or California. Others are special H-2A temporary agricultural visa holders and can come from more than 80 eligible countries. As many as half of all migrant and seasonal farmworkers are people working inside the United States without legal authorization, according to The Southern Poverty Law Center.
What all the workers have in common is their exposure to substandard and dangerous housing, much of which is similar to or even worse than what the Pizanas encountered.
Indeed, an ongoing investigation by The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting has found that chronically poor living conditions persist because the government agencies responsible for enforcing housing standards are often overwhelmed by workload or rendered ineffective by inadequate budgets and toothless policies. Abusive housing practices of both multibillion-dollar agribusiness corporations and small-scale growers continue to flourish as a result. And migrant farmworkers season after season are left to live in rundown apartments, ramshackle trailers and converted motels.
“I can tell you that the government can enact laws, but the problem is that enforcement of laws is not good enough,” said Baltazar Arvizu, a migrant farmworker in Indiana, speaking through a translator. “You see the cracks in every state.”
On a federal level, the U.S. Department of Labor oversees housing standards through the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act. The department has two different sets of standards put forth by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Employment and Training Administration. Those standards provide guidelines related to housing capacity, garbage disposal, ceiling height, fire safety and other areas. The federal H-2A visa program also includes provisions meant to protect guest workers from deficient housing.
Additional oversight trickles down to state agencies that inspect and license migrant farmworker housing under state codes.
The Midwest Center filed Freedom of Information Act requests for thousands of state-level inspection records from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin. It used that collection of records to build a first-of-its-kind public database to help determine the state of migrant housing. The database details more than 1,900 individual violations across about 470 different housing facilities between 2012 and 2016. The Midwest Center will expand the database as records become available.
A data analysis conducted by the Midwest Center found that when state inspectors visit migrant housing, they find violations up to 60 percent of the time.
“I’ve been a farmworker all my life,” Arvizu said. “You see so many sad stories.”
During a housing inspection in September 2015, Texas inspectors reported that a housing facility provided by a man named Lorenzo Gabriel Marquez did not have window screens, fire extinguishers or running water in the bathroom sink. The facility had three beds for the five workers living there.
An Iowa inspector in March 2015 noted that an apartment provided by Signet Builders was not structurally sound and had mold in a bedroom. The housing did not have tight-fitting screen doors but did have debris littering the yard.
During a housing inspection in October 2015, Indiana inspectors reported that a housing facility operated by Triple S Three Season-Primo Labor Inc. lacked proper heating equipment and had water pooling around the bathroom sink. The camp also had repeat violations related to a broken door and window.
The most severe cases entered into the database described migrant farmworkers living in housing plagued by fire-safety deficiencies, black mold, pest infestations or raw sewage leaks. More common cases included inadequate shower and laundry facilities, broken windows and doors, faulty electrical wiring and defective plumbing.
“I’ve stayed in housing that is very similar to barns for animals,” Arvizu said.
“Harvest of Shame” to Pine Creek
On Nov. 25, 1960 — the day after Thanksgiving — broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow and his crew at CBS aired “Harvest of Shame.”
The nearly hour-long investigative report opened with a scene of mostly black migrant farmworkers looking for jobs on a bustling street. Labor recruiters, who were called “hawkers” and were hired by fruit and vegetable growers, yelled the going pay rates for in-season crops. Murrow had to inform viewers that the deplorable conditions they witnessed did not exist in some faraway land. They happened in Florida, right here at home.
Less than two minutes into the documentary, migrant farmworkers were compared to rented slaves. They are the migrants, Murrow said, workers in the sweatshops of the soil.
Murrow’s unyielding report provided a behind-the-scenes look at the plight of migrant farmworkers. It toppled the early farmworker rights’ dominos and in the process helped mobilize labor rights leaders. Among them was a man named Cesar Chavez, who co-founded what is now known as the United Farm Workers union and fought for workers’ rights until his death in 1993.
Despite increased awareness and decades of reform, Tomas and Leonor Pizana know that the same deep-rooted systemic problems exposed in “Harvest of Shame” continue — and are highlighted in places such as Michigan’s Pine Creek.
When the Pizanas moved into Pine Creek, they saw that kitchen cabinets were missing doors and filled with mildew and grime. Dead bugs dotted light fixtures. The facility’s apartments had no air conditioning, and windows lacked curtains to block the hot sun. Tomas and Leonor learned that they had to “shower” by dumping buckets of water on their heads because there was no shower faucet in their bathtub.
“The housing was a surprise,” Leonor said.
About 100 other workers from Texas arrived at Pine Creek with the Pizanas in March, the couple said. Only three dozen or so workers remained in June when Tomas and Leonor spoke about their experiences during an interview with the Midwest Center. Everyone else abandoned their jobs and their paychecks and drove south, they said.
“It’s not working out here,” Tomas said.
A splintered regulatory system
Migrant housing oversight is complicated by an absence of uniform standards among states, including differences in staffing, jurisdiction and enforcement powers.
Michigan and Indiana, for example, both require inspections for any housing with five or more migrant farmworkers, but, in Indiana, responsibilities fall to the state’s Environmental Public Health division while, in Michigan, they fall to the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. In Wisconsin, farmworker housing oversight is assigned to The Department of Workforce Development, which requires licensing and inspection for any housing with just one migrant farmworker.
Iowa’s health department requires licenses for any facility housing seven or more migrant farmworkers, but it only inspects facilities upon complaint.
Missouri does not license migrant farmworker camps at all.
“[State housing laws] can be more protective than federal statutes, but they can’t be less protective,” said Daniela Dwyer, managing attorney for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid’s farmworker program. “There’s no one law that you can point to that gives migrant farmworkers rights to housing because it’s kind of a patchwork.”
Additionally, there is no guarantee state and federal agencies are sharing information. That opaqueness presents a significant challenge, according to advocates, because the migrant farmworker population is a transient one that constantly moves from state to state and camp to camp.
“IDPH has not had any contact with federal agencies tasked with monitoring migrant farmworker housing standards,” said Heather Lloyd, community health consultant for the Iowa Department of Public Health, in an email. “However, [it] would communicate with those agencies if requested via email or phone.”
Furthermore, state inspection agencies typically have limited resources and authority, the Midwest Center investigation found. This means that camps operating illegally frequently go completely undetected.
Michigan’s licensing program is among the more well-equipped and conscientious programs because the state’s agriculture industry is largely dependent on migrant labor for seasonal specialty crops. Although it operates with a $1.2 million budget, the program has just seven inspectors tasked with covering the state’s roughly 900 licensed housing camps. In 2015, they conducted nearly 2,000 total inspections across nearly 4,000 individual housing units, Michigan statistics show.
The Ohio Department of Health and its four part-time inspectors cannot levy fines of any kind. The strongest enforcement action it can take is to revoke a camp’s license. The same applies to the Iowa Department of Public Health, which does not receive any funding for its migrant labor camp program and does not have any part- or full-time inspectors.
The Illinois Department of Public Health can issue fines ranging from $100 to $1,000 for migrant farmworker housing violations. FOIA requests show that it had not issued a single fine since 2006 to May 2016.
Pine Creek shows the cracks in the system
Pine Creek outlines the major problems with migrant farmworker housing.
Not only was the camp itself infested with bed bugs and riddled with violations, but it was operating illegally. Records show that Sawyer Nursery should have never housed Tomas and Leonor Pizana at Pine Creek in the first place, as it did not have a license.
Michigan inspectors regulate housing by conducting yearly pre-season evaluations prior to worker occupancy, according to Majed Ghussaini, who manages state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development’s inspection program. They then follow up with a second pre-occupancy evaluation to verify whether housing providers corrected outstanding violations. Inspectors make at least one inspection after workers move in and more if complaints are filed with the department.
It is important to keep track of farmworker housing, Ghussaini said, because Michigan’s robust agriculture industry generates billions in farm revenue each year.
“This is heavily used housing, so it gets destroyed quickly,” he said.
Records show that inspectors visited Pine Creek on Dec. 7, 2015, as the first step of the camp’s licensing requirements. They documented 10 critical violations and more than 50 low-risk violations at the time. They asked the listed owner, Brookside Farms, to treat for mice and cockroaches and to install operable smoke detectors and fire extinguishers.
Inspectors told Brookside to fix the issues at Pine Creek before it could receive a license and house migrant farmworkers.
Bill Fritz, who runs Brookside Farms with his brother, said he was caught off guard by the licensing holdup. Brookside turned in its paperwork and mandatory application fee in November, he said. He assumed a license would be forthcoming.
“I feel like compared to prior years I didn’t do anything different,” Fritz said. “Whenever they decide they want to issue the final license card is out of my control.”
But months passed and no license came. Sawyer Nursery sublet apartments at Pine Creek from Brookside Farms and sent migrant farmworkers to live there anyway. Sawyer did not respond to several requests for comment.
The Pizanas and other workers said that they immediately notified Sawyer Nursery of the bed bugs and other housing problems after they moved in last March, but conditions did not improve. They suffered through weeks of slum-like conditions at the illegally operating camp until mid-April when Farmworker Legal Services of Michigan, a legal-aid organization based in Kalamazoo for low-income workers, discovered the problems.
“We went out to do an outreach trip, which is part of our normal routine in order to meet clients, see what the issues are and figure out what’s going on in these camps,” Benz-Rogers said. “The workers that we spoke to reported numerous housing issues, including, in particular, bed bugs.”
Benz-Rogers notified the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development about Pine Creek by filing a complaint on April 14.
Sawyer Nursery paid Rose Pest Solutions $1,625 to spray for bed bugs the following day, an invoice shows.
The department followed up on the complaint by launching its own investigation into the housing facility. Records show inspectors made at least five different trips to Pine Creek, including inspections on April 15, 18, 20 and May 2 and 16. Workers, meanwhile, continued living at the camp.
Records show that the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development eventually fined Fritz a maximum penalty of $10,000. A consent agreement shows that the penalty was whittled down to a $4,000 fine with the promise of Brookside Farms making another $4,000 in repairs. Fritz said he has exceeded the repair amount by buying an expensive “heat machine” that kills bed bugs by elevating room temperatures to upwards of 160 degree Fahrenheit.
“I felt like they put it right through me on that, but I wasn’t going to fight them,” Fritz said. “[Inspections] are a lot stricter than they ever used to be.”
The department allowed Pine Creek to operate under temporary licenses until May 9, records show. Brookside Farms received full licenses for a collection of individual apartment units after that. Licensed units at the camp are currently authorized until Dec. 31, 2016.
The camp never closed down despite the thoroughly documented problems, and workers say the conditions never really improved.
“It’s been a horrible run up there,” Fritz said.
Lawsuits document further abuses and Big Ag’s role
Without support from a strong enforcement system, migrant farmworkers turn to legal advocates for help as a last resort. There have been at least a dozen prominent migrant farmworker lawsuits filed in the last few years alone, a review of court documents shows.
“Workers have to suffer long and hard before they will stand up for themselves,” said Teresa Hendricks, executive director of Michigan Migrant Legal Aid. “Sometimes, the little pay that they get or the job that they have is better than no job at all, so they’re afraid to complain.”
Hendricks served as co-counsel during a case in 2014 when four migrant farmworker families sued a Michigan asparagus-growing operation called Richter Farms based in Van Burren County. The complaint alleged that Richter Farms from 2006 to 2012 housed its workers in an overcrowded and decrepit camp raised four feet off the ground by cinder blocks. The camp had gaps in the flooring and fungi growing on its carpet. Workers heated the camp by turning on the stove. The camp’s water was noxious, and the camp was infested by roaches and snails at multiple points during the families’ stay.
“We had pretty regular calls about that particular farm and the bad housing over the years,” said Hendricks, adding that it took years for the workers to file the lawsuit because Richter Farms kept promising it would make renovations.
The case was settled for more than $150,000 and attorney’s fees.
“There’s nothing shocking about this case or the conditions that we found,” Hendricks said. “This is something over the past 25 years that I’ve been seeing doing outreach to the camp.”
A handful of the recent migrant farmworker lawsuits have been filed against multinational agribusiness and their recruiters, court documents show.
Agriculture companies often hire middlemen known as recruiters or contractors, who then hire migrant and H-2A farmworkers. The use of these middlemen means that inspection agencies can rarely hold the companies directly accountable for mistreating workers. Agribusinesses need workers for a variety of jobs both in the field and in processing plants. In particular, DuPont Pioneer, Monsanto and other seed companies use contractors to hire migrant farmworkers to pick the pollen-producing flowers off of corn in summer to help control plant pollination.
Dozens of migrant farmworkers hired to detassel corn in Michigan filed a complaint against Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. and a recruiter hired by the company in a 2014 lawsuit. The complaint filed on their behalf alleges that Pioneer — through the services of its farm labor contractor — arranged housing for workers and family members that was overcrowded and had a gas leak. Kara Moberg, the plaintiff’s attorney, said the housing was poorly constructed and lacked air conditioning and window screens.
“They were basically operating as an oven and absorbing the heat,” Moberg said. “Our clients had to prop open their windows with sticks and several of the windows didn’t have any screens, so our clients had a lot of bug bites.”
The complaint also alleged that the farm labor contractor hired by Pioneer lied about employment conditions and withheld pay. It alleged that the contractor was not federally authorized to provide housing or transportation, both of which need official approval by the U.S. Department of Labor.
The case was settled for about $190,000 and attorney’s fees.
DuPont Pioneer declined to comment on the lawsuit specifically.
“DuPont Pioneer contracts more than 14,000 workers in the United States during the summer,” said Susan Mantey, a media relations manager for the company. “Students, local adults and migrant workers are all part of this labor pool.”
Gallery: Click to view photos from lawsuits related to housing
Suffering in vain
The Pizanas stayed at Pine Creek and suffered through the bed bugs and other conditions despite being paid much less than promised. Sawyer Nursery’s recruiter promised workers 20 hours of overtime per week, Tomas and Leonor said.
A receipt from Tomas’ most recent pay period before his interview showed not quite eight hours of overtime. Leonor's receipt showed less than five hours of overtime.
“We wouldn’t have come to Michigan if there hadn’t been overtime,” Tomas said. “I don’t want to anger the boss, but I want things to be fair.”
In total, Tomas and Leonor had combined to work 1,093 regular hours plus 140 hours of overtime, according to receipts. After federal, state, Medicare and social security taxes, the husband and wife had made a combined total of about $8,200. That total did not include expenses such as grocery costs, laundry costs, traveling costs and bills from back home.
The Pizanas paid $840 for the housing at Pine Creek from March 19 to June 16, deductions show.
“We haven’t been able to save money,” Leonor said.
During their stay, Pine Creek went from being an unlicensed camp, to a temporarily licensed camp to a fully-licensed camp. The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development took every enforcement action it could legally take against Brookside Farms. It denied a license application, handed out a harsh penalty and made a handful of follow-up inspections.
Tomas and Leonor left Pine Creek on June 24.
“We’ve never gone through anything like this before,” Leonor said.
“Unlicensed” migrant housing left out of inspections
When their job in Michigan finished, Tomas and Leonor went home to San Benito. They said they then planned on returning to the Midwest toward the end of summer to work in a tomato processing plant for Red Gold.
Between 2003 and 2009, Red Gold invested more than $5.8 million in housing improvements. The company has also been recognized for exemplary treatment of its workers by the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association.
“As we’ve improved our housing and added programs for children, we’ve kind of watched our competitors do the opposite,” said Tim Ingle, vice president of human resources and corporate strategy for Red Gold. “I just think it’s disappointing.”
Currently, there is one main federal program for construction funds to improve housing facilities for migrant farmworkers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Labor Housing Program provides loans and grants to build or repair farmworker housing. In 2015, the program distributed more than $28 million in funding.
For migrant housing conditions to improve, advocates say it will take voluntary business efforts similar to Red Gold’s. It will also take improved regulation and inspection oversight, especially when it comes to housing facilities operating outside of state licensing systems. The Midwest Center’s database does not include “unlicensed” migrant housing facilities, which comprise a substantial amount of the national stock.
Employers in recent years have increasingly capitalized on jurisdiction loopholes. Kristin Hoffman, director of the Indiana Migrant Farmworker Law Center, said she has learned of employers and recruiters housing workers in cheap motels, which may or may not be regulated as farmworker housing. Other employers try findings short-term leases with private landlords.
It is unknown how many unlicensed migrant farmworker housing sites there are in the U.S.
“These contractors are bringing in their own bedding, bringing in their own furniture,” Hoffman said. “They’re utilizing these motels as agriculture labor camps.”