* No federal, state or local agency in Michigan conducts routine inspections of dairy farmworker housing.
* The lack of oversight leaves a vulnerable workforce unprotected, farmworker advocates say.
* Some dairy farmers, including one Republican lawmaker, say they value their workers and existing regulations are adequate.
For six years, Louise Esqueda corralled, fed and cared for cows and calves six days a week at a dairy farm in southern Michigan.
When her workday ended, Esqueda returned to livingquarters provided by her employer — a mobile home stacked atop a basement. When she arrived in summer 2016, the home was “disgusting” and prone to electrical fires, she said, with animal feces in an air vent, a dead rooster in the basement and a nest of rats gnawing at the insulation in the bathroom.
“Even my dog was scared of the noises (the rats made),” Esqueda, a 39-year-old originally from south Texas, told Bridge Michigan.
“I wish I had that picture of the very first one I killed. … This was a rat on a 2-by-4, and it sat, like a stuffed teddy bear.”
Unlike other agricultural living quarters, Esqueda’s house was never inspected by state or local officials. That’s because dairy laborers work year-round and are not considered migrant or seasonal workers, whose housing camps are supposed to be inspected annually by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development under state law.
Michigan, like most other states, largely does not regulate dairy farm housing, which advocates say leaves an all-but-invisible workforce unprotected. A 2019 state report, written one year after two dairy workers died in a fire at farm housing in southwest Michigan, warned Michigan policymakers of the situation, but lawmakers made no effort to change laws.
No federal or state agency conducts routine inspections of dairy farm housing in Michigan. While municipalities can enforce building codes, that rarely happens with farm housing, according to code enforcement officials, researchers and farmworker advocates.
“If we ever want to live in a world where people are not beholden to the company for everything that happens in their life, we need to have safeguards,” said Martha Gonzalez-Cortes, former state director of the Office of Migrant Affairs and former community relations director at the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
“We potentially have thousands of vulnerable people that are working and living in difficult conditions, and are victimized by their invisibility, as they are by the deficiencies of our regulatory universe.”
Some dairy farmers, including state Sen. Ed McBroom, a Republican from the western Upper Peninsula, said current regulations are adequate, and farmworkers could choose to leave for better housing.
“If the home … is beyond acceptability, then they have the option of saying ‘Well … I’m going to need a higher wage, but I’ll take care of my own housing,’ or ‘I’m going to quit this job and go work for so and so,'” McBroom said.
Farm advocates say Michigan’s dairy industry is struggling, as milk consumption declines nationwide and bigger farms monopolize the market. The number of dairy farms in Michigan dropped to 914 last year from 1,457 in 2018, according to state reports.
Michigan still ranked sixth nationwide in milk production in 2022, accounting for 5% of the total amount of milk produced in the U.S. that year and contributed $15.7 billion annually to the state economy.
Michigan has made no effort to count dairy workers, though, and advocates say many may be unlikely to complain about conditions because they may be undocumented.
Esqueda, who is a U.S. citizen, said she endured the situation because “it’s a roof over your head and a plate on your table” for her and her two teenage children.
“What wouldn’t a mother do for her children?” she asked, crying.
Esqueda worked on the Poling Dairy Farm in the village of Addison. Farm owner Doug Poling and his wife, Jaime Poling, described Esqueda as a disgruntled former employee who arrived at the farm essentially “homeless” and was given emergency shelter.
The owners didn’t have a chance to finish cleaning the house before Esqueda arrived, Jaime Poling said, and the previous tenant had raised chickens downstairs without her knowledge.
The dead rooster was removed as soon as possible, she said, adding she was unaware of any fires and maintained the house as though she lived there.
“If I was made aware of (a problem), my people were there,” she said.
An ‘invisible’ workforce
Michigan farms employed an estimated 50,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers as of 2013, but the state has never made an effort to count dairy workers.
The Michigan Civil Rights Commission, which has conducted two censuses of migrant and seasonal farmworkers since 2006, allocated $260,000 in 2021 to update the count. At the time, commissioners expressed interest in counting dairy workers as well, said Michigan Department of Civil Rights spokesperson Vicki Levengood.
But the plan went nowhere, in part because of the pandemic and also because “more money was needed to conduct the study,” Levengood said.
Nationally, roughly 80% of the milk supply comes from farms employing foreign-born workers, and immigrant workers account for more than half of all dairy labor, according to the National Milk Producers Federation.
While on a research trip in west Michigan to visit farmworkers in 2018, Eastern Michigan University social work professor Kennedy Saldanha said he was struck that many locals never mentioned farmworkers.
“They were literally and figuratively invisible,” Saldanha said of the workers.
Michigan only inspects housing on dairy farms that hire workers on H-2A visas — or if the farms volunteer to be inspected, said Jennifer Holton, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
That means housing on about 10 to 15 dairy farms — a little more than 1% of the total in Michigan — are inspected each year, Holton said.
That leaves dairy farm housing inspection largely to local code enforcement officers, who, given the lack of statewide standards, follow different local codes, said Michigan Association of Code Enforcement Officers President Michael Johnson.
In rural townships, code officers sometimes split their time among multiple communities, he said. In Iron River in the Upper Peninsula, the police chief’s secretary is also in charge of code enforcement, Johnson said.
“With such a small workforce or availability of manpower, your priorities might be elsewhere,” he said.
Michigan state Rep. Jerry Neyer, a Shepherd dairy farmer who once served on the Isabella County Farm Bureau, said farmers in his area see housing as an incentive for worker retention.
“They’re very mindful of (workers’) living conditions, because that’s the way they keep their employees around,” Neyer said.
But, without inspections, some researchers say that farmers have no incentive to maintain employee housing.
“If it’s not inspected, they are living in — pardon my language — total indecent shitholes,” said Kathleen Sexsmith, an assistant professor of rural sociology at Pennsylvania State University who has studied dairy farmworkers in Pennsylvania and New York since 2010, but none in Michigan.
“I’ve sat in houses and watched a skunk pop out of the wall,” Sexsmith said. “I’ve seen rats. I’ve seen cockroaches. I’ve seen non-potable water. I’ve seen so many people shoved into the same house, that people sleep in the bathtub.”
Anna Hill Galendez, staff attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, said many dairy workers have told her they feel their employers value cows more than workers.
“It really speaks to the lack of protections that are available both in housing and on the job site to protect workers and to ensure they have safe and healthy conditions,” she said.
‘Be thankful you have a house’
Francisca, another dairy worker, milks cows to provide for her two children in Mexico.
She entered the United States illegally a few years ago and eventually settled on a dairy farm in southern Michigan. Six days a week for 12 hours a day, Francisca — which is not her real name — helps milk 1,500 cows daily.
She said she cannot clench her fists anymore, a byproduct of her work. The pain in her arm wakes her up at 1 a.m. sometimes.
“I might not be able to cook anymore for my children,” Francisca recalled her first thought after the symptoms came on, speaking through an interpreter.
Francisca recently showed Bridge photos of her quarters she had taken on her phone.
The farm provided her and her husband a “box” to live in, she said. There is no smoke detector to alert them of occasional electrical fires, she said.
Once, a switch box in the kitchen let out sparks and exploded, Francisca continued. When it rains, water leaks into the house, she said. The bathroom can barely fit two people at once and is “muy frío” — “very cold” — during the winter, she said.
When the couple asked their supervisor to fix the problems, he told them they should be “thankful you have a house,” Francisca recalled.
Bridge is not naming the couple because they fear retaliation and deportation. Francisca did not name the farm, but Bridge verified her account through photos, videos and an attorney advocate.
“If they return me (to Mexico), I would not be able to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish, to help my children,” Francisca said.
Between 2018 and 2020, 41% of all crop workers nationwide lacked legal work authorization, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“These guys aren’t going to complain about anything,” said Thomas Arcury, who studied immigrant worker health and is now professor emeritus at the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.
“The individual workers are here to make money. They don’t want to lose their job.”
Some, though, have lost their lives.
On Apr. 25, 2018, two dairy workers died in a fire at their employer-provided housing in Mendon Township in St. Joseph County.
The two workers were both Mexican citizens. One of them used a fake ID, according to records obtained by Bridge Michigan through a public records request.
Eight dairy workers lived in the two-story house, which a local code officer said had not been inspected in at least three years.
“Just because somebody moves into a house and occupies it, doesn’t mean that we get triggered to go out and do the inspection,” Mendon Township Building Inspector Joe Wickey told Bridge.
“I can’t just pull in somebody’s place to say, ‘Hey, I need to check your smoke detectors,’ you know?”
Police and fire investigation reports obtained by Bridge did not determine the cause of the fire, due to the heavy damage. A farm representative, a former employee and workers who lived in the house that year gave conflicting accounts of the situation before the fire, according to documents and Bridge interviews.
“The lack of state oversight here had tragic consequences and … left us with very limited documentation of the housing conditions prior to the fire,” Hill Galendez of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center told Bridge in an email.
“If the law was changed, this type of employer-provided housing could be licensed under the state’s agricultural labor camp program and thus inspected prior to any workers occupying the housing, to ensure essential safety requirements are met.”
‘No one to protect you’
The Michigan Department of Civil Rights has worked on migrant farmworker issues since the 1960s, but efforts to look into dairy farms have gone nowhere.
In the 2019 report, a state committee on farmworkers noted Michigan’s lack of oversight on dairy farms and smaller farms, with five or fewer migratory workers, as a challenge to be addressed.
Since then, there has been no talk of dairy farm housing conditions, said John Johnson, the department’s director.
“This commission has a whole different list of priorities that doesn’t include this,” he told Bridge in August.
Likewise, reform efforts nationally have sputtered. In Congress, a bipartisan bill could also subject more dairy housing to inspections under the H-2A regulations.
The “Farm Workforce Modernization Act” would establish a new three-year H-2A visa for both seasonal and year-round workers. The bill was first introduced in 2019 but was repeatedly blocked by the U.S. Senate.
The legislation would allocate up to 20,000 H-2A visas nationwide, with half reserved for dairy workers. Among other things, the bill would also give undocumented workers a path to legal status in the United States — an element applauded by some farmworker advocates.
If passed, the bill would allow dairy farms to tap into a fast-growing market of H-2A workers — something dairy farms have advocated for — and subject more dairy farm housing to H-2A inspection requirements.
While the New York Farm Bureau supports the bill, the industry’s biggest lobbying group, the American Farm Bureau Federation, raised concerns that it would allow H-2A workers to sue their employers and establish a minimum wage rate unsustainable for farmers.
The National Milk Producers Federation, an industry group, said in a statement that the group and an “overwhelming majority of dairy farmers” support “quality housing” for workers.
The group has a guidebook for states on “best practices in managing employee housing,” said spokesperson Alan Bjerga. Additionally, the organization has supported legislation to provide housing or vouchers for employees and bills to improve the “guestworker program” for immigrant workers, he said.
Some states have adopted regulations that apply to employer-provided housing for year-round agricultural workers.
In California, the Employee Housing Act covers rural, farm-provided and privately-owned quarters that house five or more agricultural workers, and generally requires inspections and investigations of complaints related to housing conditions. But “properly maintained” manufactured and mobile homes on dairy farms may be exempt from the state’s annual permitting requirements, according to the state.
In Wisconsin, while state law does not explicitly address year-round agricultural workers, the state requires employer-provided housing to be “adequate, decent and sanitary, according to usual and customary standards,” and employees cannot share a bed.
Michigan law is silent on the standards of permanent agricultural worker housing.
The Michigan Farm Bureau, one of the state’s biggest agricultural trade groups, did not respond to several Bridge inquiries. Its 2023 policy book, though, opposes “excessive regulations” by federal inspectors and advocates that regulations should be left to Michigan regulators.
The group also supported restoring state grants for farm labor housing and a “uniform” standard of housing conditions.
A spokesperson for the Michigan Milk Producers Association — the state’s largest dairy cooperative — said only that dairy farms aren’t required to provide housing to employees and are “subject to the same laws and requirements that apply to other residential landlords in Michigan.”
In Michigan, legislators could change the law and subject dairy farm housing to state oversight, but no lawmaker has attempted to do so in at least 34 years, bill records show.
Senate Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee Chair Sue Shink, D-Northfield Township, this week told Bridge she plans to look into the state’s farm housing regulations.
“All workers deserve safe, comfortable housing. I will be looking at regulations around farmworker housing to see where improvements are needed,” she said in a text Tuesday.
House Agriculture Committee Chair Rep. Reggie Miller, D-Van Buren Township, did not respond to requests for comment.
McBroom, the state Republican senator and a dairy farmer, said he does not see how a new law would protect undocumented workers from their employers.
“I don’t understand how anybody who’s skirting the law can ever be going to the law to get more help without endangering their status,” McBroom told Bridge.
Neyer, the Shepherd dairy farmer and Republican lawmaker, said he is open to a complaint-driven inspection process on dairy housing but does not want to burden farmers who are already providing safe housing.
“I’d hate to put in rules across the whole industry for one or two bad actors,” he said.
The Polings, the dairy farmers in Addison, said inspections shouldn’t be mandatory — but could shield them against “disgruntled” employees.
“There would be a level of protection for us to say: ‘That housing was inspected. It was up to standards, and this is unverified or unjustified,'” said farm owner Doug Poling.
Farmworker advocates and researchers argue the first step to policy reform is for the state to extend the same housing requirements from migrant and seasonal farm work to year-round operations to protect dairy farmworkers.
“I see no reason other than politics for dairy farmworker housing to remain excluded from that,” said Sexsmith, the rural sociology professor at Pennsylvania State University.
Francisca, the undocumented worker, said while she fears being questioned by inspectors, housing inspections are needed to keep farmers in check and assure a “quality of life” for farmworkers.
Until then, “you feel unprotected,” she told Bridge through an interpreter.
“You have no one to protect you.”
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