April 13, 2016

Blighted Housing: Much of Missouri migrant farmworker housing left out of inspection program

Print
Migrant farmworkers help plant, pick and process the food that ends up on kitchen tables. Under current Missouri policies, only housing for foreign migrant farmworkers with H-2A visas is required to undergo inspection.

Photo by Robert Holly/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Migrant farmworkers help plant, pick and process the food that ends up on kitchen tables. Under current Missouri policies, only housing for foreign migrant farmworkers with H-2A visas is required to undergo inspection.

In Missouri, inspections for migrant worker housing are required only for employers that own housing units that will be occupied by temporary foreign workers, according to the Missouri Department of Economic Development.

See related: “Blighted Housing: Inspections fail to stem poor conditions for migrant farmworkers”

These workers, who labor under the H-2A visa program, are required to return to their home countries after their work is done. Employers who get approval to hire H-2A workers must provide quality housing free of charge.

Data on exactly how many migrant workers come to Missouri annually is hard to come by, but officials at some non-profit organizations in the Midwest estimated in recent years the number has probably ranged from 15,000 to 18,000.

Anywhere from 300 to 600 of those workers are part of the migrant worker population on H-2A visas, according to U.S. Department of Labor data.

See related: “Blighted Housing: Visa program requires housing inspections for non-U.S. farmworkers”

That means that the vast majority of migrant workers, who are either U.S. citizens or immigrants, live in residences not mandated to face inspections because they are considered private.

Most migrant workers live and work in rural areas where laws mandating housing inspections may not exist, or where there may not be staffing there to enforce those policies, according to interviews with inspectors and non-profit workers.

Stephen Borders, program director at United Migrant Opportunity Services, has worked to connect migrant laborers with housing services, legal aid and Head Start programs for more than a decade.

“We don’t have a very organized, uniform system in Missouri to make sure housing for migrant workers is in good shape,” Borders said.

See related: “Blighted Housing: A look inside eight migrant farmworker camps”

Missouri’s Foreign Labor Certification Coordinators, which operate within the Department of Economic Development’s Division of Workforce Development, administer migrant housing inspections for two programs: the Foreign Labor Certification Program, also known as the H-2A program, and the Migrant and Seasonal Farm Worker program, according to agency spokeswoman Amy Susan.

When conducting inspections on H-2A housing, state coordinators assess the site using one of two federal laws, depending on when the property was built. Inspections must be done before migrant workers arrive to live there for the season.

If the housing unit was constructed before April 1, 1980, coordinators use the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration regulations. If built after that date, they use an inspection form designed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration instead.


Click to explore: Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting migrant farmworker housing database


Both sets of inspection standards are similar in quality assessment. They require coordinators to look at screens on windows and doors, to make sure water runs both hot and cold, to ensure bathrooms are in working order and to check that there are clean sleeping facilities.

But housing inspections are not required for those participating in the MSFW program, Susan said. Most migrant workers are employed through this program.

State coordinators conduct MSFW inspections only at the request of employers or when a complaint has been filed against the housing unit.

The rules and instructions for these inspections are the same used for the other program, but only one location has requested and undergone such an inspection in the last six years, Susan confirmed.

See related: “A conversation with Monsanto on migrant farmworker housing”

State inspectors couldn’t be reached for multiple requests for comment, but the state’s economic development department did provide free of charge housing inspection forms to clarify the process.

As far as staffing for inspections for the entire state of Missouri, Susan confirmed at least one person conducts the inspections, “sometimes with the assistance of another staff person working in a related program or field,” she clarified.

Employers on the H-2A program whose sites pass inspection are in the clear for one year but must get their properties inspected on an annual basis, Susan said.

“If the housing unit does not meet federal guidelines, the employer has five days to address any deficiencies,” Susan said. “If issues are not remedied, the [U.S. Department of Labor] will not issue a certification for the employer.”

This system can create a patchwork in which employers may not know where to turn for compliance help.

In such instances, the federal government can clarify, said Adam D. Huggins, a Kansas City-based senior investigator adviser for the Midwest Region of the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, which looks into complaints of housing violations.

Huggins cited the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act and said that each person or organization in control of a facility used for housing migrant workers must comply with federal and state safety and health standards. A written statement of the terms and conditions of occupancy must be posted at the housing site for workers to see or access, the act states.

“It can get confusing at times, as there is no order of operations,” Huggins said. “But we do take inspections seriously, and workers and employers should know this, as workers do have protections for having safe, adequate, reasonably safe conditions to live in.”

Huggins said that in addition to inspecting sites facing complaints, the agency also conducts more sweeping site visits at random, based on targeted segments of the agricultural industry, usually determined by geography, crop or other criteria that may cause concern.

The Department of Labor works with other government agencies to help implement the MSAWP act. For more information, call 1-866-4USADOL (1-866-487-2365) or visit http://www.dol.gov/compliance/guide/mspa.htm.