AUBURN — The owner of an Owasco farm currently under investigation by several local and state government agencies was summoned to court later this month for illegally housing workers on his farm for months.
On Thursday night, town of Owasco code enforcement officer J. Patrick Doyle visited Melrose Farm to inspect a building that the farm's owner had been using to house employees, town Supervisor Ed Wagner told The Citizen Monday. The building Doyle came to inspect had been cited by the town in February and at that time, Joe Tidd was ordered to stop housing workers in that structure until it was brought up to code. The structure was also cited by the Cayuga County Health Department in February for not having an acceptable septic system.
When Doyle got to the property last week, he called Tidd and asked for permission to enter the workers' housing for an inspection. Tidd gave Doyle permission to enter the building, and admitted to Doyle on the phone that he would find people living in the shelter, Wagner said. In late August, Rebecca Fuentes of the Workers' Center of Central New York came forward with letters from one farm employee and a workers' center volunteer, both claiming Tidd continued to house workers in the structure despite the town's early prohibition.
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When Doyle knocked on the door, one of the workers answered and let him inside. According to Wagner, Doyle observed furniture and bedding in the living quarters. He immediately condemned the building and instructed Tidd to turn off the power and lock it up. The next day, Doyle returned to Melrose Farm and issued Tidd a ticket to appear in town of Owasco Court for "failure to comply with an order to remedy violation and a cease and desist order," according to a copy of the ticket Wagner provided to The Citizen. Tidd is ordered to appear in court at 6 p.m. Monday, Sept. 24.
"Mr. Tidd was given every opportunity to make the situation he created go away," Wagner said in a statement to The Citizen. "Unfortunately, hard working individuals had to live in conditions I find deplorable for too long."
After Doyle condemned the property, Tidd paid for the workers, three single men, to stay at the Days Inn in Auburn since he had nowhere to house them. Then, on Sunday afternoon, Tidd fired the workers.
The Citizen interviewed two of the workers — who did not provide their full names in fear of retaliation — at the room they had been staying in as rain fell outside Monday morning. Fuentes translated the conversation. The men found work at a farm in Pennsylvania and were getting ready to move. Their belongings, packed in black garbage bags, a large suitcase and several duffle bags, sat across from the beds, spilling into the entryway. Some things, like a carton of dozens of eggs, bottled water, sodas and two large fans, the men were not able to bring with them.
Juan, 28, from Mexico, said he opened the door when Doyle knocked. He said when Doyle entered the building, he first came into the kitchen. From there, Doyle could see where the workers had been sleeping on pull-out couches.
Juan and Jose, 23, from Guatemala, said living on the farm was difficult, unpleasant and uncomfortable.
"For us, single men, we know there used to be families there," Jose said. "That's really bad. For us, it was just what we got, it was enough."
Juan added, "We want things to improve for the new workers that are coming. We don't want them to go through what we did."
Juan said Tidd told him and the two other workers they were fired because he didn't have any other housing to provide for them. Juan said Tidd had mentioned that he may need to sell some of his cows because he no longer had enough employees to milk them all.
Fuentes said she feels if the town of Owasco and other government agencies do not stay on top of Tidd, that he will continue to bring in workers and force them to live in dangerous and inhumane conditions.
"The town needs to know we're not going to stop. We're not going to let other people live like that," Fuentes said. "It's up to us as a society to say that's not right."
The workers also claim Tidd owes them wages from their last week of work. Fuentes called Tidd from the hotel room Monday and asked him to pay the men upfront, as they need the money to move to Pennsylvania. Tidd refused to pay them early and insisted he would send their wages to their new address on pay day, which is Sept. 19. At least one former Melrose Farm employee has filed a complaint against Tidd with the state Department of Labor, claiming he owes her wages.
The farm is still being investigated by the county health department and the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Eileen O'Connor, director of environmental health for the Cayuga County Health Department, said she spoke on the phone with Tidd on Aug. 29. During that conversation, O'Connor told Tidd that he has until Sept. 20 to remove all plumbing fixtures from the workers' housing building or install a brand new system. According to a citation issued to Tidd by the health department in February, Tidd was directing human waste into a manure lagoon on the farm. If he does not comply with the health department's order, O'Connor said, Tidd will have to attend a board of health hearing and a hearing officer will decide what kind of penalty to impose.
A DEC spokesperson said Monday in an email to The Citizen that the agency is still "pursuing" Tidd for violating clean water regulations.
Tidd declined to comment for this story.