When they’re not milking cows, many of Vermont’s estimated 1500 undocumented migrant farmworkers dwell in shabby mobile homes or cramped RVs, with the shades drawn against prying eyes.
Workers rarely speak out about poor housing conditions for fear of being fired — or deported. And local officials typically don’t get involved in farmworker housing disputes.
But in Salisbury, town officials have made the unusual choice to intervene in a case of second-rate worker housing. At a dairy farm owned by Randy and Jean Quesnel, two Latino farmworkers have been living in filth for years.
The laborers, who are in the country illegally, live in a small bunkhouse affixed to the barn where they milk cows. The two-room dwelling has an open wastewater drain in the middle of the concrete floor. There’s no indoor toilet; the workers must walk past the cow stanchions to a Porta-Potty outside the barn.
On a site visit to the farm last year, town officials described an “overpowering stench in both living and sleeping areas” from the nearby cows and observed a “fly-encrusted string trap” strung six feet across the living area.
“These people have gone through two winters using a Porta-Potty, going outdoors to go to the bathroom,” says Salisbury zoning administrator Jon Filion, who has slapped the Quesnels with two zoning violations for not having a state-approved wastewater system for the bunkhouse. “Do you think that’s right?”
Despite fines and repeated warnings over the course of a year and a half, the problems had still not been addressed by last month, when the town filed a complaint against the Quesnels in the environmental division of the Vermont Superior Court. Selectboard chair Ben Fuller says officials didn’t make the decision lightly; pursuing zoning violations in court takes time — and taxpayer money.
But Fuller says the infractions concern “human welfare” and ignoring them would leave Salisbury with a “black eye.” He says, “It was incumbent upon the town to do something about it.”
Documented foreign workers would never be housed in such conditions. The accommodations of workers with H2A visas who work in Vermont apple orchards and poultry farms are subject to annual inspection by the Vermont Department of Labor.
But undocumented workers don’t have that luxury — and won’t until they get a legal pathway to work visas, as proposed in the immigration overhaul that passed the U.S. Senate in late June.
For now, farmworkers remain at the mercy of their employers for housing — and living conditions vary wildly.
The Quesnels own a farm in Cornwall, on which they reside, and another in West Salisbury, which town officials say a relative oversees. No one answered the door at their home in Cornwall, and the only phone number listed for the couple is no longer in service. At the dairy barn down the street, a teenage farmhand said he’d pass along a note to Randy Quesnel, but the farmer never called.
At the West Salisbury farm, with its notorious bunkhouse, a tilted wooden sign affixed to the barn door reads “Quesnel’s Dairyland.” On a recent afternoon, the muddy barnyard in front of the long, gray barn was quiet. Only a barking dog responded to a knock at a nearby farmhouse.
Filion says he doesn’t remember who tipped him off that workers in “Dairyland” might be living in substandard conditions, but he went to see for himself in September 2011. Instead of issuing a violation notice right away, he talked with the Quesnels, who assured him they’d fix the problems. He was willing to give the couple the benefit of the doubt, he says, because he was new to the job and sympathetic to the economics of dairy farming.
But “it got to a point where I realized that nothing was getting done,” Filion says. “So I had to do something.”
What followed was a months-long back-and-forth between Filion and the farmers. His issued the first notice of violation — for housing workers in what Filion calls the “milk house” attached to the barn — in March 2012. That was nullified when the Quesnels moved their workers into an RV on the property. But Filion pointed out that a recreational vehicle is not considered suitable permanent housing, either.
Solution? They wound up right back where they started, “in a fly-infested milk house,” says Mary Anne Sullivan, a former member of the Salisbury Development Review Board.
When Filion issued a second citation in August 2012, the Quesnels appealed his decision to the DRB.
As part of their due diligence, DRB members visited the farm on September 26 and came away “furious,” according to Sullivan, who has since stepped down from the board. “They must walk through manure to get to their living quarters … and the explanation is, ‘Well, it’s probably better than where they came from.’”
In a strongly worded decision dated October 4, the DRB unanimously upheld Filion’s original citation. “The DRB … is more than dismayed that this situation has been prolonged as long as it has — over a year,” the decision reads. “As this is foremost a matter of humane treatment of workers, it is also clear that a remedy must be effected immediately.”
The citizen body asked the zoning administrator and other elected officials to “urgently take all means and methods to immediately enforce the notice of violation and remedy this situation.”
But nothing happened. Though the Quesnels secured the proper permits for an approved wastewater system, they never made the improvements. Members of the DRB and other Salisbury residents pressed the town selectboard to take action on the case.
Local officials had no idea how to proceed. When town health officer Jeanne Montross stepped into the fray last winter, she called state representatives, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Vermont Farm Bureau but received no clear guidance.
“It seemed like there was this great void, and it was so difficult to even get people to call back,” she says.
“No one really wanted to touch it,” agrees Fuller.
Filion discovered the same problem. He says some migrant worker advocates were only interested in whether the workers were being mistreated or “worked to death.”
“People who should be more interested in the conditions didn’t seem to be,” Filion says. “It’s pretty damn frustrating to me.”
Farmworker organizers such as Natalia Fajardo of Migrant Justice are quick to point out that not all laborers live in squalor. A success story, she says, is that of Carlos, an 18-year-old dairy worker in Addison County who has been in Vermont three years. Up until eight months ago, Carlos lived with four other Mexicans in a decrepit trailer; four slept in the bedroom and a fifth crashed on the living room couch.
So Carlos and the workers pressed the farmer for a better living situation. After a few months, the farmer agreed to move them into a farmhouse he had in mind for his mother-in-law. Carlos recently showed a reporter his new digs on the condition his last name and town of residence not be used.
From their house, a bay window looks out over green hills and rolling farmland. The furniture in the wood-paneled living room — provided by Carlos’ employer — is used and mismatched, but comfortable. The television is blaring a midday telenovela when Carlos flicks off the set.
Carlos counts himself lucky; he gets paid overtime and lives in decent housing. He says a friend on another farm lives in a small tow-behind trailer with three other workers, with a tarp over the top to keep the roof from leaking.
Housing has special importance to Vermont’s undocumented farmhands: outside of work, it’s where they spend all of their time, says Fajardo. “Rarely do you leave the house.”
In Rutland County, a farmworker named Ismael showed off the brand-new mobile home he occupies with his brother. On a quick break from his afternoon farm chores, Ismael says he’s worked on seven farms during his 10 years in the United States and that some came with “very bad” living conditions, such as holes in the floor and heat that didn’t work. At some Vermont farms, he shared a room with four or five other men.
Ismael, who also didn’t want his last name or town of residence identified, says one former Vermont employer put him in a bedbug-infested house with a broken refrigerator. He and his brother kept groceries in the barn, in a refrigerator reserved for cow medicine.
When the men asked the farmer for better housing and higher wages, the farmer didn’t budge — so Ismael and his brother left. They turned to one agent Ismael says helps farmworkers find employment on dairy farms, and the brothers landed in Rutland County.
Ismael says it’s the best housing he’s had in the U.S. — and far more comfortable than his digs in Mexico, which he left a decade ago. The farmer is fair, and gives his workers a day and a half of rest every week.
“Good house, good pay, good job,” Ismael says. “I’m content here.”
No one knows if the farmworkers living at the Quesnel dairy farm are satisfied with their lodging; few town officials have interacted with the workers, and Filion insists the original “tip” didn’t come from them.
As for the Quesnels? At last September’s hearing, DRB members pressed Jean Quesnel about the zoning violation. She stated simply: “I don’t think what we’re doing is wrong.”