by Andrew Wise
Regulators and Non-profits Work to Improve Housing Conditions
The air hung heavy with wildfire smoke and a muggy 83 degrees on August 2, the day Honesto Ibarra started feeling ill while working in the blueberry fields at Sarbanand Farms in Sumas. He complained of headaches and would be rushed to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle days later. Ibarra died on August 6.
Ibarra’s death initiated a wave of protests at Sarbanand and efforts on social media to criticize Sarbanand’s corporate owner, California-based Munger Farms, as well as Natureripe, one of the companies Sarbanand supplies. Dozens of workers were fired after protesting the conditions at the farm, including the housing and food, and they built a camp in the yard of a sympathetic landowner nearby.
Almost a month earlier, on July 9, just a few weeks into berry harvesting season, fire trucks and ambulances sat quiet outside a long, narrow row of farm worker housing cabins at Sakuma Brothers Farms on Cook Road near Burlington. Emergency services had been called when an 11-year-old daughter of one of Sakuma’s pickers was found unresponsive in one of the cabins. Officials determined she had died of carbon monoxide poisoning after her family had gotten up early to cook breakfast on their small propane stove and failed to turn off the gas.
For Rosalinda Guillen and Kent Kok, facilitators at Community to Community Development, a non-profit organization in Bellingham advocating for farmworker rights, both incidents are emblematic of the harsh reality of life in an agricultural labor camps. At Sakuma, farmworker families are faced with trying to raise children in a space that is not their own. At Sarbanand, men on short-term visas live in large, high-density dormitories, with everything from bedding to food designed to minimize cost and maximize profit for berry farms. Kok and Guillen expressed concerns about Sarbanand during an interview for this story on August 2, the day Ibarra first left the fields when he wasn’t feeling well.
“It’s a question of dignity,” Guillen said, adding that she sees the labor camp model as a concept left over from slavery. Guillen described the cabins at Sakuma as small, roughly two hundred square foot space with a small cooking area. They do not have insulation and farms are required to provide 50 square feet of living space per occupant. Most camps are designed to meet the minimum standard set by the state. That often means long rows of wood cabins, “tiny little boxes,” Kok said, without insulation, adjacent to detached, communal bathrooms.
For Kok, the housing reality farmworkers face is a unique burden. Few industries require their employees’ families to stay in employer-owned housing facilities for extended periods of time, living in close quarters with other families and sharing bathroom, shower, and laundry facilities.
“We don’t command this of anybody else in our society,” Kok said, sitting in the Community to Community offices on the second floor of an office building on Holly Street in Bellingham. The office walls are crammed with photos, signs, and plaques documenting years of work to improve living conditions for farmworkers in northwest Washington.
At Sarbanand Farms near Sumas, the temporary workers flown in from Mexico are housed together in large, barracks-style buildings with shared bathroom facilities. When Honesto Ibarra, a worker at the camp, died in early August, 70 other Sarbanand workers stopped working to protest conditions at the farm. The farm fired all 70 of those workers. photo: Andrew Wise
But the quality of farmworker housing in Washington varies widely, and has proven difficult to comprehensively manage. Housing for the farmworker takes many forms, from the rows of small cabins at Sakuma to the 500 beds at Sarbanand, to shoddy trailer homes rented out by nearby residents, to Villa Santa Fe, a large apartment complex for farmworker families on Bakerview Ave. in Bellingham managed by Catholic Community Services.
Tragedies like those at Sakuma and Sarbanand raise questions about the quantity and quality of housing resources for farmworkers and their families. As advocacy groups like Community to Community push for more frequent inspections and better facilities, and farms complain about costly regulation, state regulators struggle to balance budget problems and manpower shortages to monitor existing facilities while funding the construction of new ones. With more and more workers remaining in the state year-round, and rents in Whatcom and Skagit counties continuing to rise, all of those entities will be required to adapt. But what form those adaptations will take remains up for debate.
Enforcing the Rules
When something like the death at the Sakuma camp occurs, it winds up on Kimberly Moore’s desk. Moore is the managing director of housing programs for the Washington State Department of Health. Her job includes issuing and overseeing labor camp licenses for farms across the state.
Any employer housing more than ten workers is required to apply for a license with the state in order to operate. Moore’s team of inspectors is in charge of ensuring that housing is up to the standards mandated by the state, from bathroom facilities to laundry machines to smoke detectors and carbon monoxide monitors.
“I feel like I’m the voice that makes sure everybody’s treated humanely, within my scope of making sure they have safe housing,” Moore said. “Any complaints we get we take seriously, and if we see things that are concerning, we follow up to make sure they have the information and the tools to make it right.”
Farms that provide housing go through two inspections by the health department each year, one before the harvest season, sometime in Spring, where inspectors look at housing facilities without any workers present. Moore said depending on the size of the facility, the process can take all day. At smaller operations, inspectors check every unit, but at larger camps, they will choose a random selection of units from each housing block.
Potential for Deterioration
Moore said anything that fails to meet state standards must be addressed before a farm can receive its license to operate for the season. Even with small deficiencies, like damaged screen doors, she requires the operator to remit receipts proving the repair was completed.
Then, at the peak of harvest season when camps are at their maximum capacity, Moore’s inspectors return to the farms to check if conditions have deteriorated.
She said second inspections have revealed significant mismanagement in some cases.
“Sometimes the preliminary inspection will look really good, and then the sewage system might not be able to handle the load so on the second inspection you’ll see raw sewage everywhere, or you’ll see trash strewn around the camp,” Moore said. “Sometimes there can be infestations of bedbugs or roaches.”
But she said it has never resulted in shutting down a farm midseason. For farms employing temporary workers who are in the United States on visas, trying to send everyone home midseason creates a logistical nightmare.
“If you take away their license, then you have people who are stranded in this country,” Moore said. “It could take a while for various agencies to get involved to make [farms] do the right thing. Then you have a problem.”
Importance of Inspection
Instead, Moore said, the department tries to achieve compliance through re-inspection. On August 10, just days after Honesto Ibarra’s death, Moore was at the camp inspecting housing conditions. She spoke with Ibarra’s cousin and checked the food-handling practices at the camp, something that had figured prominently among the complaints set forth by the 70 workers that refused to work and were fired by Sarbanand.
Sarbanand’s parent company, California-based Munger Foods, did not respond to requests for comment for this story, but in a statement released to The Lynden Tribune after Ibarra’s death, Munger representative Cliff Wooley outlined company policies in place allowing workers to say something if they aren’t feeling well and receive treatment. He also said in the statement that workers are encouraged to report problems with the facility.
On the whole, Moore said Sarbanand was clean and had more than enough space to house its employees. The facility had only had one formal complaint filed. She found smoke detectors beeping because they had low batteries and sent inspectors back the next day to make sure all of those batteries had been replaced.
“If you don’t want to see our face anymore, then you need to meet our standards,” Moore said.
But one of Community to Community’s chief concerns is the enforcement of regulations at labor camps like Sarbanand and Sakuma.
“The biggest problem in our discussions with state agents is that there is a real lack of inspectors,” Kok said. “I think that runs the gamut in all these departments that they don’t have enough inspectors to adequately go from place to place to investigate, or even really to inspect whether these facilities are adequate.”
Moore doesn’t see it that way. While she does authorize overtime pay for her staff through the busy spring and summer seasons, and works a few 12-hour days and weekends, Moore doesn’t feel understaffed or underfunded.
“Thus far, nothing tragic has fallen through our cracks, and we’re trying to make sure it stays that way,” she said.
In the case of the 11-year-old girl at Sakuma, Moore said her family’s carbon monoxide detector was likely in place and working, as required by department regulations. The pre-occupancy inspection took place on May 3, and indicated that the cabins at Sakuma, including the girl’s family’s unit, had smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors.
The child died on July 9, but Moore and her team didn’t conduct a follow-up inspection until August 3. Moore said her office had not immediately been made aware of the incident.
Inspectors checked the carbon monoxide monitors that same day. Sakuma also conducts its own weekly inspections of the cabins, which, according to their Camp Management Plan, include checking the condition of the carbon monoxide detectors. When Moore checked that weekly log, a Sakuma employee had signed off that the carbon monoxide monitor had been functioning just two days before that fateful morning.
Moore admits uncertainty remains. “Do we know if they worked that day? I don’t know. I wasn’t there. But on May 3 and August 3, they worked,” she said.
She also noted that the camps at Sakuma are fairly new, both completed in the last five years, and that in that time there has only been one complaint filed against the farm, and it was found to be without basis. She also noted that the camps at Sakuma have things like playgrounds, barbecues, and basketball hoops, none of which are required by state law.
But Kok and Guillen said farmworkers are often wary of filing complaints, fearing they could lose their jobs. Moore said inspectors do what they can to speak with workers away from their supervisors about conditions and treatment. They hand out cards in English and Spanish with a phone number where they can file anonymous complaints. She added almost all of the complaints her department receives come from advocacy groups like Community to Community on behalf of workers.
For Guillen, though, even if the camps at Sakuma haven’t been shown to be below state standards, it’s the ultimate impact on farmworker health that should be the metric for whether or not housing is safe and adequate.
“All we can do, really, is try to keep workers from dying, and it was a blatant failure in the case of this child,” she said. She also pointed to the other threats to health farmworkers face. Long days in the sun working around plants occasionally covered in pesticides. Farmworkers are frequently diagnosed with allergies related to that exposure, and the shared bathroom and shower facilities at the camps mean that exposure can continue through the evening hours and even extend to their children and families.
Old school buses wait to transport workers at Sarbanand to the blueberry fields spread along Rock Road. photo: Andrew Wise
Looking to the Future
Better regulation of labor camps is only one part of a long-term solution to the issues Guillen and Kok see with farmworker housing. More and more farmworkers are trying to stay in Whatcom and Skagit County year-round. Community to Community has estimated that number to be around 3,000-3,500 in Whatcom County.
The slowdown in immigration is due to multiple factors, Guillen said, including a changing climate making seasons less predictable and a new presidential administration that is pushing for stricter immigration enforcement.
Right now, that means many families leave the farms at the end of the season with limited housing options. If they can’t pay the average rent in the county where they’re working the fields, they quickly find themselves in substandard living conditions. In many cases, farmworkers have been mistreated by their landlords, with little recourse for the families.
A farmworker family of six received a massive bill from their landlord to fix damage done to the small travel trailer they had been renting, damage they say was already present when they moved in. Community to Community stepped in with legal resources to fight the landlord’s claims, while also helping the family find a different place to live. But the legal fight was expensive, and took the better part of a year.
“There are these concocted agreements or stories that landlords tell about their tenants,” Kok said.
Building Better Housing
One effort to prevent such instances are projects like Villa Santa Fe, an apartment complex completed last October on Bakerview Rd. in Bellingham. The complex was built and is managed by Catholic Community Services with funding from the State Housing Trust. The two and three-bedroom apartments are rented on a sliding scale based on income and limited to families working in agriculture. But there aren’t very many complexes like Villa Santa Fe. Kok was a involved in developing a similar project in Everson, but it was never built.
Corina Grigoras, Managing Director of the Washington State Housing Trust Fund, is in charge of distributing state funds for public housing. The Housing Trust is a part of the Department of Commerce, and the money Grigoras has to work with depends on appropriations from the capital budget, as well as some funding from federal level.
Typically, Grigoras is given figures from the state legislature every two years specifying how many new housing units the agency should fund, and in which sectors. The 2015-2017 capital budget allocated $75 million toward building a total of 1,900 homes. Those were spread across a range of populations, from homeless youth to veterans to people with disabilities. Of the 1,900 homes, 176 were set aside for farmworkers, along with 500 new seasonal beds.
It’s the sole responsibility of the legislature to determine the state’s need and resources for housing each year. But Grigoras’ department stands outside that process.
“Don’t ask me how they come up with the number of units,” Grigoras said. But once she has that number of units, she begins soliciting bids from different groups who would use those funds to build new housing projects. From 2005 to 2007, there was a dedicated Farmworker Housing Program, but that program melded into the Housing Trust.
In 1999, the state invested $8 million into farmworker housing. The next year, it developed a loan program through the Housing Trust Fund to subsidize farms building their own on-site housing. But that program ended in 2011. The agency now focuses on contracting with non-profit entities to build housing projects. Catholic Community Services has become a key recipient, and has built and manages five different farmworker housing properties in Whatcom and Skagit counties, including Villa Santa Fe, as well as many more around the state.
“We spread the money around as best we can,” Grigoras said. Some appropriated funds are already tied to particular projects in particular locations, forming what Grigoras calls “The list.” She said that list seems to be a result of political deal-making in the legislature, with lawmakers pursuing funding for their own districts.
Despite the lack of a state capital budget for 2018, Grigoras is continuing to solicit proposals for new housing projects, operating on faith that the legislature will come to an agreement.
“Right now, this is uncharted territory for us,” she said, but she’s hoping not to lose any time in moving projects forward.
“There is a greater need than there are resources,” Grigoras said.
But Kok and Guillen offer an alternative to waiting for the state to fund CCS-built housing projects: Pay farmworkers enough that they can enter the housing market.
“It’s my opinion that the [labor camps] could just go away, and there’s a way for workers to afford to get apartments and houses, maybe even buy a house, with the wages that they’re getting,” Kok said. “If they can achieve a living wage, and not have to rely on this free, crappy, housing that’s provided, then they can get a house or apartment that’s adequate.”
Guillen, a former farmworker herself, sees the skill and intense labor involved in picking and pruning as equivalent to other unionized, craft labor that typically earns a living wage. Based on that, she said, a good minimum wage for a farmworker is $25 an hour, moving up to $45 an hour.
Even the newly-minted contract between Familias Unidos por la Justia, the union representing farmworkers at Sakuma, doesn’t come close to that kind of wage. It guarantees about $15 with room for increases based on quantity picked. But Kok said that agreement is the start of a process to give farmworkers more power.
“Every other worker demands a wage that pays their rent,” Guillen said.
As the harvest season winds down, regulators and other state officials like Moore and Grigoras will begin compiling data for the annual reports that attempt to paint a picture of housing resources and needs in the state. Guillen and Kok will continue working with families to find better housing and hold abusive landlords accountable. But with tragedies at multiple farms looming over the entire berry-growing community, questions remain.
Setting a New Standard
One bright spot might be the Bow Hill Blueberry Farm, a small organic producer located outside Edison. They do not provide housing for their workers, but do pay high wages. Guillen said they’re working to develop domestic fair trade standards voluntarily, a far cry from the years of contentious debate that produced the FUJ-Sakuma contract.
And the industry may be willing to adapt. Moore said in her experience that most producers want their employees to communicate and report problems.
“We’ll work with them all day to help them do the right thing. If they don’t want to do the right thing, then, of course, we’ll bring in the hammer. But most of them want to do the right thing,” she said.
Guillen hopes in the future, they can harness that attitude to continue improving conditions for workers.
“It’s a cultural change,” she said, “in how you see workers, how workers see the employer, how the worker and the employer see the farm, and how the community interacts with the whole process.”
Andrew Wise is completing degrees in environmental policy and journalism at Western Washington University. A native of Colorado, reporting on northwest Washington is starting to make Whatcom County feel like home.