MARDELA SPRINGS, Md. – The small, white trailer with its plywood door may not look like much, but for farm worker Leonicio Miguel Bartolon Gonzalez, 42, who came from Guatemala 21 years ago hoping for more than the $10 a day he earned at home, it’s a dream come true.
The trailer home is provided by his employer, Calloway Farms, and for Gonzalez it means the difference between earning a living and blowing all his pay on a hotel, or bedding down in an overcrowded, U-Haul truck with mattresses on the floor.
Maryland’s agricultural industry depends on workers like Gonzalez, and with little affordable housing nearby, some employers provide housing to assure they retain workers. Homes for seasonal workers must be registered with the state, which is among several entities that inspect them for everything from mattress sanitation to water quality.
Much of the housing meets state standards, but some does not. And some others go undetected by agencies that are by all accounts overwhelmed and understaffed, leaving many immigrants living in squalid conditions and risking the public health.
“There are a lot of camp housing conditions that go unreported and uninvestigated because of fear of retaliation, and I think that’s really shameful,” said Daniela Dwyer, supervising attorney for Legal Aid Bureau, a non-profit organization offering free civil legal services to low-income residents and migrants. It is illegal for employers to retaliate against a worker who reports a violation.
One location on Dwyer’s radar is near Gonzalez, in an unregistered mobile home and shed where 10 Latino immigrants sleep on filthy mattresses under water-damaged ceilings and cook in a kitchen just feet away from a vat of raw chicken parts.
The men smile and stare down at their mud-caked boots when asked why they don’t complain.
Many illegal workers don’t complain for fear of deportation, but what they often don’t know, is that they are protected under state housing regulations regardless of their legal status.
“They are here illegally, and don’t want to get in trouble, so don’t want it inspected,” said Gonzalez, of some of the seasonal employees.
The inspection standards safeguard against everything from improper refrigeration, which can lead to a contagious illness like food poisoning, to disease-causing rodent infestation to insufficient sanitary facilities, which can spread contagions.
Migrant workers will often work despite their illness, rather than forfeiting their wages for the day, and that can lead to the spread of disease, said Dr. Jim Rushing, professor of horticulture at Clemson University who also teaches farm worker hygiene classes.
“If workers could not adequately clean themselves, they’re going to be handling food and they’re not clean,” said Dianna Baldwin, program manager for Food Quality Assurance at the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
Even if workers are not sick, “if any human waste is not properly disposed of, it could contaminate a crop,” Baldwin said.
Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer of the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety said there have been “episodes where it (an outbreak) has happened on the farm level and can be traced back to a farm worker.”
The 2003 green onion Hepatitis A outbreak in Pennsylvania is one example of an illness that spread from such conditions, Acheson said. In that case, 555 people were sickened and three were killed.
Such cases are hard to trace, and in fact there have been no such instances reported in Maryland within the last five years, said Dr. Jeff Roche of the Maryland State Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s Epidemiology and Disease Control Program.
“It’s just so hard to come up with a smoking gun,” Rushing explained.
But the consequences of an outbreak are serious enough that the FDA held a hearing last month in College Park to address the growing concern for food safety, listing “worker health and hygiene” as one of the six factors that “may affect contamination.”
The Department of Agriculture’s Good Agricultural Practices program was brought up at the hearing as one example that looks at the farm worker factor.
Three farms in Maryland have sought the voluntary certification, but mandatory inspections do not occur because of a lack of resources.
“You don’t want anyone to become ill or die from food-borne illness, but when you put it in perspective who gets sick (and) the resources to conduct an inspection, it’s enormous,” Baldwin said.
“The percentage of problems is small,” she said, “it would be thousands of inspections just to verify that information.”
DHMH has inspected housing conditions since 1970 to ensure minimum health standards, however, they can only inspect those facilities that register for a permit, about 90 per year.
William Calloway, who employs Gonzalez, owns the only two migrant housing facilities registered in Wicomico County – a house and a mobile home – that have been inspected for at least the past three years, according to inspection reports from DHMH.
Gonzalez’s trailer, as well as the unregistered shed and mobile home across from him, are roughly a mile from the inspected units, and do not appear on the state list of registered facilities.
“I don’t want to get involved in that,” Calloway said when asked about the workers living there.
Pam Engle, chief of the Division of Community Services, the part of DHMH responsible for the inspections, said she is not aware of other housing facilities in Wicomico County, but if she hears of one, she will send an inspector to question the workers to determine migrant or seasonal worker status, to see if they are protected by the regulations.
If the workers say they are employed year-round, they do not qualify and so no inspection is needed or performed.
Engle said it’s possible for her agency to not know about some locations, but that there are other agencies that do know, and should inform her office.
Dwyer said such reporting doesn’t always happen because her bureau is not a “government agency.”
“If a client wants to make a complaint, we can represent them … (but) we are not under any legal duty to report these conditions,” she said.
With only four sanitation-certified inspectors to regulate every youth summer camp, trailer park, campground, public pool, hot tub, spa and migrant camp in the state, doing just the required inspections is difficult enough.
“I’ve been in government for 30 years, and we’re beyond busy, the days of fattened government are gone if there ever was,” said Alan Taylor, director of Consumer Health Services, which includes Engle’s division.
“We do a risk assessment based on every type of business that we regulate,” Taylor said, “and we put the resources in the highest risk and work our way down.”
Currently at the top of the list are the 600-700 youth summer camps, and about the same number of local government programs.
“Well, four people, there’s just no way we can do that,” Engle said.
Division staff reductions in 2003 and 2004 resulted in a significant drop in the number of inspections the agency performed, a number which rose in the 2005 summer season because of temporary hires, according to records from the Maryland Department of Budget and Management, but Engle said they only helped with youth camps, leaving the remaining inspections at the mercy of the priority list.
“In my mind, we do as much as we can with what we’ve got,” Taylor said. “Could we do more? Sure. There’s always more that could be done … ”
Many farmers see the health department overdoing it by imposing stringent guidelines that are impossible to meet when workers make a mess of even the nicest conditions.
“I can have it top notch … and the next day, it’s a wreck,” said John Martin, owner of Ivy Hill Farm in Smithsburg who had migrant housing until it became too hard to maintain.
Gonzalez admits that while the workers do help clean, “some days they get drunk, and break windows, and doors, it’s their problem.”
But local health departments, Maryland Occupational Safety and Health, and the Office of the State Fire Marshal see it as their problem, too. Each agency does task-specific inspections of the facilities registered with the state.
However, staffing problems impede the work of some of these agencies.
For example, said Deputy State Fire Marshal W. Faron Taylor, fire inspectors are responsible for “every multi-family home and every business in the state of Maryland.”
The now-defunct Governor’s Commission on Migratory and Seasonal Farm Labor once attempted to bring all the inspections under one roof.
It was created in 1959 to “strive to make sure that our farm workers live in safe and sanitary housing and work in a safe non-hazardous environment,” according to its 2003 annual report, the last before it closed for want of staffing and funds, said Carmen Pratt, executive director of the Governor’s Commissions.
It’s difficult to estimate just how large a group is affected by these issues, or how many might be living in unregistered farm housing statewide. The Pew Hispanic Center estimated 225,000 to 275,000 unauthorized migrants lived in Maryland in 2005 alone.
In addition to the over 5.5 million permanent Maryland residents and the number of visa-holding migrant and seasonal farm workers, it’s clear just how big of a job DHMH has.
“I don’t think the public actually knows how much … they (the Division of Community Services) do to protect public health,” Taylor said.
But for this 32-year sanitation veteran, who admits that “over the years it’s been mostly funding issues” that have caused the staffing shortfalls, they’re doing a good enough job for him.
“I send my kids to camp in Maryland,” he said, “I eat the food in Maryland, I trust the lives of my family members with our program. I guess that says something.”