ANNAPOLIS – Twelve of the 82 migrant labor camps in Maryland failed to pass housing inspections this year, the state health department said Wednesday.
The violations, which prevented the farms from getting housing permits, ranged from inadequate or failed septic and water systems to failure to dispose of trash. The problems could contribute to other health concerns, including West Nile virus and Lyme disease.
Six of the 12 migrant farms are still operating, and the others have closed for the season. The department declined to name the troubled camps.
“If there was a complete threat to human health and safety, yes, we would shut it (a violating farm camp) down,” said Lawrence R. Worthington, executive director of the Governor’s Commission on Migratory and Seasonal Farm Labor.
Unless the violations pose a serious threat, Worthington added, the state health department works with local departments to keep the farms open and get them back into compliance.
“Where are the workers going to go?” Worthington said. “It would be different if they could change jobs.”
Caroline County had four farms in violation, the highest of any county. One of those four farms has corrected violations and is in the process of receiving a permit.
“The problem in Caroline County is with aged buildings,” said Worthington. Many buildings are old and need to be torn down and replaced with more modern facilities, he said.
Prince George’s, Queen Anne’s, Washington and Somerset counties each had one noncompliant farm, while Wicomico and Kent counties had two noncompliant farms each. The farms house a total of about 88 migrant workers throughout the year.
“Workers are very reluctant to complain for fear of being fired,” said Laura Stack, a Legal Aid Bureau attorney. If the state health department receives a complaint, she said, it does respond, but few complaints are filed.
One Cecil County farm was nearing shut down because of local zoning issues and an inadequate septic system, but the health department helped bring it into compliance and it was permitted last week. The camp, which has a 22-person capacity, opened April 3.
“It’s ever-evolving and the status of the farms will change,” said Pamela Engle, acting chief of the community services division for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
The health department did preseason inspections for camps with critical issues, and every camp was inspected during operation. Deadlines are set for violators to make corrections.
Housing problems are also a health concern for migrant workers.
According to the state health department, high grass and standing water can lead to an increase in Lyme disease or West Nile. If trash is not hauled away properly, screens on windows and doors are not fixed and food is not stored properly, bug infestation can be a problem.
Those health issues are aggravated by the fact that very few migrant farm workers have health insurance and most receive medical care through federally funded programs. They are less inclined to report health problems. “They have access to care, but a lot of times, they only report serious problems,” said Maureen Donovan, a nurse with the state health department, “We try to educate them about the availability of services and proper procedures.”