Dead Smoke Alarms, Moldy Rooms, Empty First Aid Kits: Farmworkers Endure Unsafe and Substandard Housing Across US

Conor here: The following report details the conditions “temporary” agriculture workers face. Meanwhile, the world is facing a major hunger crisis, Americans are paying more than ever for food, and the US is still facing a shortage of agriculture workers. But food companies are making record profits. 

By Sky Chadde who has covered the agriculture industry for Investigate Midwest since 2019 and spent much of 2020 focused on the crisis of COVID-19 in meatpacking plants, which included collecting and analyzing data on case counts. Originally published at Investigate Midwest

No smoke detector. No fire extinguisher. No emergency exit.

In October 2022, an inspector ticked off problems in the white, single-story house in a rural town in western Nebraska. Three farmworkers — the low-paid laborers that power the agriculture industry — were scheduled to arrive in town soon. They would corral cattle in the cold.

Their employer intended to keep them in the white house, but it was unlivable, according to the inspector. Along with no fire prevention measures in place, mold flowered in the basement, and water pooled in the drains.

State records are unclear whether the employer addressed the inspector’s findings.

But, across the country, when farmworkers arrive at employer-provided housing, they often face similar problems, according to Investigate Midwest’s review of more than 6,600 inspections of H-2A housing and migrant labor camps from 19 states.

The analysis found:

FAULTY FIRE PREVENTION. Inspectors in nine of the 19 states noted dead smoke detectors, empty fire extinguishers and blocked or nonexistent emergency exits. Some inspectors asked employers to provide emergency exit signs in English and Spanish, the language most farmworkers are fluent in. In all, inspectors identified more than 300 problems related to fire prevention in just 2022, according to Investigate Midwest’s analysis.

In one incident in 2021, two men perished in a fire in employer-provided housing in North Carolina. The cause of the fire is unclear. The state inspected the trailer before workers arrived, but the inspection offered no details on the condition of its smoke alarms. A survivor of the fire told Investigate Midwest he could not remember alarms sounding. The employer could not confirm whether the alarms worked, according to a fire investigation report.

LEAKS CONTRIBUTING TO MOLD OR MILDEW. Inspectors in eight states identified leaky fridges or toilets, or standing puddles of water. In a New York house, water seeped from the upstairs kitchen into a bedroom. Mold grew in the bathroom. Some 200 inspections identified leaks or mold or mildew. Mold can lead to itchy eyes or skin and breathing issues, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

MISSING FIRST AID KITS. In nine states, inspectors recorded either missing first aid kits or kits that had insufficient supplies. Providing a first aid kit to H-2A workers is a federal requirement, yet inspectors had to remind employers of this about 100 times in 2022, according to the records. Agriculture work often exposes workers to danger, such as excessive heat and pesticides that can irritate the eyes and skin.

The figures above represent a small sample of the total number of inspections in a year. In some instances, the issues were fixed during follow-up inspections or on the spot, as some inspection documents showed.

Problems can persist, though.

For example, in 2021 in southern Michigan, an inspector visited a grouping of houses along a rural highway. He noted an empty fire extinguisher, no batteries in the smoke detectors and a broken GFCI outlet.

The inspector told the employer the “critical” violations needed to be rectified before workers arrived. A follow-up inspection, months later, would confirm the fixes. But in the previous two years, inspectors had identified similar issues, records show.

In all, only six inspection records in the 19 states explicitly stated dwellings were in “good condition.”

Many people working in the American agriculture industry have the potential to face substandard housing. There are roughly 1 million farmworkers in the U.S., according to federal data. About a third of them arrive in the U.S. on H-2A, or temporary agriculture labor, visas.

They detassel the corn that allows major seed and pesticide companies, such as Bayer and Corteva, to produce more efficient seed varieties to market to farmers. They pick and package the vegetables that consumers purchase conveniently at grocery stores. And, more commonly now, they build massive barns for the livestock industry.

The federal government requires all states to inspect H-2A housing annually, though only some states inspect known migrant labor camps. Understanding the quality of farmworker housing proved difficult.

Starting two years ago, Investigate Midwest attempted to obtain farmworker housing inspections from every state but was stymied.

The U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees the H-2A program, said it could not provide detailed inspection information. Several states just denied requests for inspections. Some states said inspections were only maintained on paper, leading to requests for hefty copying fees.

When states did supply their records, sometimes critical information, such as the employer’s name and the inspector’s comments, was redacted — making it difficult to link repeated issues to specific companies. (Investigate Midwest successfully challenged the redactions in Illinois.)

Chronic Housing Complaints

Farmworkers have complained of substandard housing for decades. In 1960, television viewers saw farmworkers living in horrifying conditions on the CBS broadcast, “Harvest of Shame,” which was produced by Edward R. Murrow. Since then, advocacy groups, government agencies and news organizations have documented consistently unsafe housing.

In 2019 and 2020, the organization Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Inc., or CDM, spent months interviewing 100 workers in Mexico. They had been hired to work in the U.S. through the H-2A program over the past four years. Nearly half reported “overcrowded and/or unsanitary” conditions, according to the organization’s report.

One worker told the organization his employer-provided housing was infested with rats and had a broken refrigerator, so food quickly spoiled. Another worker relayed living in an “iron chicken coop.”

At minimum, all states must inspect employer-provided H-2A housing before the dwelling is occupied. Only some states inspect after workers arrive. In its report, CDM said inspections while workers are present is “essential” — “housing that appears to be adequate prior to occupation may quickly become overcrowded, unsanitary, and unsafe once occupied.”

That was the situation in 2018 in Missouri, which only inspects H-2A housing prior to occupancy. A Florida labor contractor had bought two houses for workers who would pick watermelons in the state’s Bootheel that summer. When the inspector visited, she approved both houses.

Her only notes: “Large trash container for weekly pickup. 3 smoke alarms. Will take workers to local laundry mat (sic) once a week.”

Soon, though, federal investigators descended on the labor contractor after two workers complained about their treatment.

When investigators toured the houses — two months after the state inspection — they found “unsafe, deteriorating and unsanitary” conditions. Trash had piled up inside and out. A toilet leaked so much water pooled under the floor. Milk was stored in the freezer because the fridge failed.

After the federal investigation became public, Missouri officials with the state’s department of economic development told Investigate Midwest an inspection report is a “snapshot in time.”

Flailing System to Inspect Houses

Half a century ago, the government created a system to address poor farmworker housing, among other indignities. But the system has struggled to perform its basic duties, Investigate Midwest has reported.

Inspecting houses often means spending hours driving to rural areas, and developing relationships with farmworkers who could blow the whistle on poor housing takes time.

“You can’t just put somebody in that seat,” a former inspector told Investigate Midwest.

But staff turnover has plagued the program. One of its basic tenets is outreach to farmworkers, which many state inspectors fail to perform on a yearly basis, according to internal program reports.

Federal Data Lacking

The U.S. Department of Labor maintains detailed — and readily available — records on the H-2A visa program.

On its website, the labor department has collated how many hours will be worked on each day of the week, the education level employers require for workers, and even the middle initials of the lawyers who fill out the H-2A paperwork for employers.

Little is available on housing quality.

The federal data shows where workers will live, how many people will stay there with them and whether they’ll stay in a house, motel or barracks. But the records only capture whether a state inspector decided the location met the federal standard — there are no details as to what problems inspectors might have encountered.

The federal government collects the housing inspections performed by each state, but it’s unclear what happens after that. State officials either “report and/or upload” the records through a U.S. labor department computer application, but the federal agency does not have a mechanism in place to search through the records, it told Investigate Midwest.

When Investigate Midwest requested housing inspections from the agency, the request was denied because the request could not be completed.

According to the labor department’s data on its website, a majority of farmworker housing meets federal standards. In recent years, more than 95% of inspected H-2A dwellings hit the mark.

That figure obscures a more complex reality.

In Michigan in 2021, for example, about 97% of inspected dwellings met federal standards, according to the federal labor department’s data.

Yet that same year, state inspectors detected problems at two-thirds of farmworker housing, according to Investigate Midwest’s analysis of state records. And 10% had what the state considered “critical” violations — dead smoke detectors, blocked emergency exits, leaks.

Housing quality is a major determinant in a person’s health, and studies have linked substandard housing to poor health in farmworkers.

“Lack of housing and poor housing can be a significant source of stress for farmworkers,” the American Public Health Association, an organization that publishes studies on public health, said in a policy statement. “Farmworkers who depend on their employers for housing are especially vulnerable since expressing concerns with housing quality could result in both job and housing loss.”

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  1. Screwball

    I grew up in Northwest Ohio. There have been migrant workers around here for as long as I can remember. They come every summer to work in the fields. Entire families of all ages. The main produce is pickles and tomatoes. There is a Heinz factory within 30 miles. From what I know, they are hired by local farmers.

    I can’t say I’ve ever saw any inspectors, but quite a few border patrol cars. I have driven by many of these camps where they live when they are not spending sun-up to sun-down in the fields. Their camps are terrible. Literal shacks and they live in squalor.

    I hate to say this, but they seem used to it. They come into town to the grocery, with as many as they can cram in a car, truck or van. They are filthy, they stink, and they will steal the place blind if you don’t watch them. I know this because my wife worked in a store in a little town surrounded by migrant camps. Many cannot speak English. On weekends some get drunk and crazy. The locals are afraid of them and what they might do. Not all, but some. Not uncommon for the Sheriff to be called for various reasons.

    I got to know one guy pretty well who came from Texas years ago, but ended up working in a local factory and made a nice life for himself. He told how his Dad made him work the fields from a young age, along with all his brothers and sisters. Paid by the bushel, family got the money. His family eventually moved to the area as well. Their house was a shack, probably all they could afford. It’s all they know. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but that’s how they live. Huge garden, plenty of clotheslines, maybe a dozen people living in a house that’s meant for half that number.

    Not a pretty life, and not one I can see most American’s willing to do. Sun-up to sun-down 7 days a week in the fields dealing with all kinds of weather, while living in squalor, and paid by the bushel/basket.

    When I think about it, what’s the difference between these migrants and the 12 year old girl in China making our iphone, shoes, or trinket we just bought from Walmart? We see the migrants, and not the 12 year old girl. They are all forms of slave labor if you want to be honest.

    Just observations from rural Ohio farm country.

    1. Rod

      I have lived in Northern California most my life. At one time my father was a farmer(more like a share cropper) and we lived on a farm that was the location of the first labor strike of farm workers in the USA that led to the rise of Ceaser Cavez and the farm laborers union. There were people killed there during the strike and the farm was in Wheatland, California. Here is a link:

      I do not see the squalor around Northern Ca. that you describe in farm workers unless it’s hidden well. The state has also cracked down on farmers who have tried. I remember when East Indians started buying up the farmland around Sutter County in Northern Ca. and they tried to bring squalor back including illegal servitude, but California cracked down on them for trying and filed legal cases against them and it stopped(I am hopeful).
      Maybe it’s a problem with Ohio.

      1. Rod

        I am sorry, I made a few mistakes in my prior post. I am getting old and my memory is not what it once was and its been decades since I read about the strike so I needed my memory refreshed. But the Wheatland strikes were one of the first strikes according to the Wikpedia article that I linked, not the first strike. Also the case of substandard housing and servitude with the East Indian farmers was in Yuba County(next to Sutter County) in the 1970’s or 1980’s.

    2. Eclair

      “I hate to say this but they seem used to it.”

      Screwball, what choice do the migrant workers have? The focus of this article is the awful conditions of migrant worker housing. And this would include broken down bathroom equipment, no hot water, workers jammed into small spaces, all using one rickety bathroom. Not to mention no laundry facilities. And, soap, shampoo, body wash, deodorant, are expensive. No wonder ‘they are filthy, they stink.’ Especially after working for 10 – 12 hours of 100 degree weather, in dusty fields and orchards.
      The lovely thing about hiring workers on visas, or, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, without papers, is that they are so vulnerable. One complaint to the boss about inadequate plumbing and you might be out of a job.

      I am sure you did not mean your comment to sound mean and to insinuate that the people who spend their probably short lives producing the food we eat are somehow less than human.

      1. Screwball

        I agree, and I don’t consider them less than human. I was just talking about the reality of the situation. The family I know tried to escape that awful life but they didn’t have the money to live like many others around here do. But their life was still better than it was before, even living in the horrid conditions they could afford.

        It may sound cold, but that sort of life is all they know. That’s all they’ve ever known. I don’t want to sound cold calling them migrants either, but that’s what the guy I know called himself. When he would tell me stories about life in the fields he would start by saying “when I was a migrant….” I knew several others who made a life here. Wonderful people, and good workers. Horrible life they had.

        I would see them in the fields when I drove to work, then in the same fields when I drove home. It might be pouring down rain or 100 degrees. I couldn’t imagine doing what they did. It’s inhumane IMO. But so is the 12 year old girl in China who sewed my sneakers together, while living like caged animals in rat infested dorms, and workplaces with suicide nets.

        I have issues with America’s selective outrage. I hear people saying “It’s awful the conditions these people are forced to work in.” Fact check = true. Do you own an iPhone? What’s the difference? As they sit there eating a $100 dinner staring at a $1000 phone.

        Well, there is a difference. If our migrant farm labor all quit tomorrow we would be up that famous creek without a paddle. I don’t need a cell phone, and I can’t eat one either (hat tip to William Dudley of Fed fame).

        1. Al

          Not sure where you keep getting the 12 yo in China making shoes. That was like 15-20 years ago. They cracked down on child labor.

          Sounds more like Pakistan or Bangladesh. Or the US with kids working in the Ford and GM plants.

  2. Wukchumni

    It’s virtually all Mexican-Americans working the orchards here, and I’m not privy to their living conditions, but don’t really see any hovels were they reside. The nearest big city is Woodlake and it’s 87% Hispanic there with Ag virtually all the action, and many own their own homes

    The bigger issue is the average age of these workers is 45, no young Mexican immigrants are picking up their slack, and why would they?

    You can earn as much working in a fast food place, and not be subjected to awful Tule Fog in the winter and the 100 days of 100 degrees in the summer.

    1. Sue inSoCal

      I think you’re right, Wuk. This has been pretty political. After following the sleazy Resnicks for years, (buddies of Gov Useless), who own all the water in the valley(s) for the Poms’ nut and pomegranate trees, I posit that they were shamed into providing relatively decent abodes for their company town, Lost Hills. You know more about that neck of the woods than I do. Always seeking glowing press, it appears they provide housing now rather than the previous hovels in da company town. The former complaints have been scrubbed as nearly I can tell. But there’s always a $$$ catch for these guys. (Don’t know about the rest of their national empire.) Tax breaks!! Like all good billionaires! (I’ve sort have gone sideways here, but I’ve stayed in that town and watched the vans roll in and the Hispanic workers roll out out of them…)

  3. Dave

    Hey Uncle Sam why aren’t you setting up an AI data search initiative to fix this?

    The following is somewhat misleading:


    State officials either “report and/or upload” the records through a U.S. labor department computer application, but the federal agency does not have a mechanism in place to search through the records, it


    The government could set up a software development project to fix this. It could involve ‘AI’ if appropriate.
    But if these guys are serious about ‘data’ they should be in a position to extract basic information from the ‘data’ that they hold, e.g. a government agency should be able to perform basic searches on the resources that it holds.

  4. Ewell Culbertson

    I’m a fruit grower in Colorado. I contract with 20 H2A farm workers, most of which have worked for our family farm for 10 years. I’m no expert on other states, but in my experience in Colorado, the H2A housing conditions are not as described in the article. It is puzzling to me the way that, seemingly out of nowhere, fruit and vegetable growers are being targeted by journalists in articles such as this one. The compliance requirements for fresh produce growers is extensive and is rapidly increasing. With land prices at an all time high I’m seeing older growers, frustrated with the paperwork, inspectors and social justice warriors, cashing out, selling their land and water rights to billionaires who are seeking to buy up farm land as fast as possible. Do you think there’s a connection here?

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