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.