Civil penalties totaling $4,250 for providing substandard housing to migrant workers are being imposed against Colorado cantaloupe grower Eric Jensen, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division.

Brothers Eric and Ryan Jensen are the owners of Jensen Farms, which last year produced and shipped a crop of Rocky Ford-brand cantaloupe that were contaminated with Listeria. It resulted in the deadliest outbreak of foodborne illness in nearly 100 years.

Eric Jensen, according to the Department of Labor, also owns the Gateway Motel in Holly, CO. He allegedly was claiming an exemption from the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA) as an innkeeper.

The Wage and Hour Division, however, found the Gateway Motel was closed to the public during most of the year and did not have a telephone number for prospective guests to call to reserve a room. Jensen has said the motel is open to the public for hunting season.

Migrant workers were being charged $25 a week to stay at the Gateway Motel.  For the money, Jensen was only providing space in an overcrowded room without beds, laundry facilities, or smoke detectors, according to the government. Windows in the building could not be opened.

“Profiting at the expense of vulnerable workers is not just inhumane, it’s illegal,” said Chad Frasier, the Wage and Hour Division’s district director in Denver. “Our agency is committed to upholding wage and hour laws that protect the nation’s workers, particularly those who earn the least and are vulnerable.”

A state and federal investigation into last year’s Listeria outbreak found the center of the contamination was the Jensen Farms packing facility in Granada, CO, about 10 miles from Holly.

According to a report in the Denver Post, Jensen said he did not know the Gateway Motel was renting space out to migrant workers. Even if that were true, it would not likely be enough to get him out of the civil penalties.

Holly, founded by Holly Sugar in 1905, has long had a dependency on migrant labor to deliver the area’s sugar beet crop, and now migrant labor is also used to harvest cantaloupes. Labor officials found Jensen’s claim that he was an “innkeeper” unconvincing.

The migrant worker protection act requires farm-worker contractors to register with the Department of Labor. It says most agricultural employers, agricultural associations and labor contractors are subject to the law’s standards, which covers wages, housing, transportation, disclosures and record-keeping.  Any person or organization owning or controlling buildings or property used to house migrant workers must comply with the safety and health standards.

  • Danae in MD

    What a complete outrage. My family had the honor of meeting a group of migrant worker kids one summer. The kids were in a summer school program while their parents worked in the fields. These kids are probably the most at risk group in our county. They don’t have much of anything, are constantly switching schools, and have to live in places like the Gateway Motel. The migrant worker kids are the most forgotten group of children in the US. Those kids have to look at our kids with lots of toys, clothes, big houses, and see us playing at Disney World and know they cannot even have 1% of what our children enjoy. That any child lives like that in our affluent country is inexcusable!

  • DJ

    Even if migrant workers are in the US illegally, they are human beings, and should not be treated like slave labor. We need to crack down on employers who hire illegals. And ones who mistreat legal workers, too.

  • Steve

    The fact is we are all eating on the backs of farm workers — and as such are complicit , even in our ignorance or non-attention.
    For a look at the deplorable (virtual slavery) conditions migrant workers in the tomato industry face every day please read the excellently written “Tomatoland” by Barry Estabrook…