Vt.’s housing health & safety system didn’t protect farmworkers, so they created their own program
The front door to Javier’s house is at the top of two flights of stairs. He lives above a dairy barn in Addison County.
We’re using a pseudonym for Javier. He’s worried about what his employer might do in response to speaking out about the conditions of his housing.
Inside, Javier gives me a tour. We start in the kitchen, where an ancient-looking air conditioning unit sits in the wall. Javier says the previous AC unit didn’t work properly for months this summer before his boss finally replaced it.
“It didn't work, just the air, like a fan … and it lasted around three months, or two,” Javier says.
In the bathroom, the toilet sometimes leaks into the kitchen area. Then there’s the shower. It has no shower head, just a bare pipe. Javier says the water sometimes comes out scalding. So he’ll use a bucket to mix it with cold water to bathe.
In Javier’s windowless bedroom, you can hear the sound of mooing cows.
“There are some cows down here that are going to give birth,” he says. “If they move, the house moves.”
When I ask Javier if he’s talked to his boss about his housing conditions, he says he has, with mixed results. In the meantime, Javier says he adapts, because he has to.
But living like this can be bad for your health. According to the World Health Organization, poor housing is connected with respiratory, cardiovascular and infectious diseases, injuries and mental illness.
Vermont's rental housing regulation
Javier is among the 2,000 or so people living in on-farm housing provided by their employers in Vermont, mostly on dairy farms. Employees live on site because they often lack transportation, and work long hours.
Because of the year-round, more-permanent nature of dairy production, a Department of Labor spokesperson told Vermont Public that the federal law intended to protect seasonal migrant workers — including their housing rights — does not apply to farmworkers like Javier.
Under Vermont law, however, farmworkers with employer-provided housing are guaranteed a safe, clean and habitable place to live. On-farm housing is covered by the state’s rental housing health code, which requires things like proper heating and ventilation, functional bathrooms and weather-tight rooms.
But Vermont Public found that no state agency tracks on-farm housing complaints.
Currently, rental housing health is overseen by the Department of Health. And it’s enforced by town and city health officers.
Meg McCarthy is with the Health Department. She says when health officers receive a complaint, they do an inspection and then set a deadline to fix the problem.
But she says there’s no specific process for how a health officer might check whether the problem is actually fixed.
“They might ask for, you know, receipts or an email or something to show that the violation has been corrected,” McCarthy says. “They may go out and do a follow-up inspection.”
And under this system, the state doesn’t know the nature or number of these complaints.
“It would kind of be a town-by-town question at this point,” McCarthy says. “I have not heard of many — if any — complaints about farmworker housing that have, you know, that have been raised up to me. That's not to say they don't happen.”
Under legislation passed last session, Vermont’s rental housing regulation will become more centralized. All complaints will go to the Department of Public Safety’s Division of Fire Safety.
Mike Desrochers is that division’s executive director. In an email to Vermont Public, he said people can make complaints to the system by email, phone or a fillable form. The new law still does not include a specific process for follow-up.
And in the past, Desrochers says he knows of very few fire safety complaints made specifically about on-farm housing. He says the Division of Fire Safety database doesn’t track complaints by type of residence, just by address.
Moving forward, Desrochers says the division does plan to include on-farm housing in its public education outreach.
But farmworker advocates say these existing systems don’t work for them.
“So having access to those systems is not something that is known by the community,” says Marita Canedo, who is with Migrant Justice. She says making housing complaints to state agencies isn’t practical when many of the state’s dairy farmworkers speak Spanish as a first language.
“There are no staff that speak the language or will understand and answer a call in their language,” Canedo says.
Desrochers says the Division of Fire Safety will have both Spanish and French versions of its complaint form, and has access to interpreters when needed.
Farmworkers build their own system
While there is currently little interaction between Vermont agencies and workers living in on-farm housing, one government body has identified that there is a widespread problem.
In 2021, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board released a report highlighting key issues with on-farm housing for workers, including overcrowding, fire hazards, lack of functioning appliances in kitchens and bathrooms, as well as improper ventilation.
The report says more than half of Vermont’s farmworker housing units are in need of repairs.
Up and running since 2017, it asks companies that sign on to pay a premium to the farms they source their dairy from. In exchange, the farms comply with a code of conduct, which includes providing safe and clean housing.
Canedo says farmworkers created this enforcement program when the state’s mechanisms failed.
“We know unfortunately the capacity of the state, having people doing investigations in housing, it's lacking or there is no capacity,” she says. “Implementation of basic standards like fire extinguishers, smoke alarms, are not being seen.”
And Canedo says it’s designed by farmworkers, for farmworkers.
“It comes from the people directly affected,” she says. “So the workers created these standards in housing, they are living there day by day, so they know what they need.”
Canedo coordinates the program and answers its tele ayuda support line.
“Most of the complaints come when the people are already gone from the farm,” she says. “Because of this fear of you know, you lose your job, you lose your housing situation.”
She says if the complaint comes from a farm that doesn’t want to make housing improvements, and is outside of the program, Migrant Justice tries to organize workers and protect them from being fired.
Canedo says in some cases, farm owners are more willing.
“We have seen in some cases that farm owners really want to change the situation, but they don't have the resources, or the space," she says.
How to move forward
For the 50 or so farms currently covered by Milk With Dignity, they either have to fix the problem, or potentially lose their premium payments and market for milk.
And workers on those farms do see real change. Like Anthony, a farmworker in Swanton. He says he used to live in a barn, in a single room with two other people, where they’d all sleep and eat.
But Migrant Justice says the farm has since used its premium money to build more housing. Anthony now lives in a new, clean, three-bedroom house. He says he can come home, relax, and disconnect from work.
“Pretty calm, relaxed, okay, life seems lighter than the one I had before,” Anthony says.
Farmworkers and their advocates say while Milk With Dignity is effective in improving on-farm housing conditions, it currently covers just 20% of Vermont's dairy industry. They say more businesses need to take part in order to reverse what they say are crisis conditions.
Ben & Jerry’s is the only company in the program. Migrant Justice is trying to get supermarket chain Hannaford to sign on, and eventually, it would also like state institutions that purchase and serve dairy to join.
For now, the organization says it is beginning to collaborate with the state. Migrant Justice recently helped refer farm owners to a new farmworker housing repair loan program overseen by the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and administered by the Champlain Housing Trust.
That program had $500,000 to spend. In its first round, it received application requests for a total of $1.7 million.