OWASCO — A farmworker has come forward to say he is being housed in a structure on a dairy farm in Owasco that has been cited by both the town of Owasco and Cayuga County Health Department as not fit for occupancy.
During a protest in front of Melrose Farm Tuesday, Rebecca Fuentes, the lead organizer of the Workers' Center of Central New York, read a letter written by an unidentified employee who stated he has been working at Melrose Farm since February 2018, shortly after town and county health officials issued violations against the farm's owner, Joseph Tidd.
In his letter, the worker wrote that Tidd provided him with housing on the farm, where he works 60 hours a week. When there was an expected inspection by Owasco code enforcement officer J. Patrick Doyle, Tidd would tell him and the other workers to leave the house, and then Tidd would remove the workers' mattresses, put them in a trailer and haul them away from the farm until the inspection was over.
The worker said the mattresses would be returned "very dirty, as the trailer they use is the same where they put the food for the cows." The worker said this has happened twice since he began working at the farm.
"Besides this there are a lot of cockroaches and other bugs in the house," the worker wrote. "The house is not a good place to live and something needs to be done."
Crispin Hernandez, an organizer with the workers' center, provided a written account of living conditions he observed on the farm when he visited on Aug. 18 with another volunteer to do outreach for the employees. Hernandez said the worker told him the same thing he wrote in his letter and he witnessed first hand the mattresses on the floor and dirty living conditions.
Hernandez said he has been doing outreach at the farm since last year "and I can say nothing has changed." Hernandez said the worker told him that there are four people living in the building, though he did not witness all of them at the residence while he was there. Hernandez and the worker also wrote in their letters that Tidd has put a sign outside the structure identifying it as an office.
According to a violation notices sent to Tidd in early February by Doyle, Tidd never applied for or obtained a permit to build the structure where he was housing his farm workers, nor was there any record of electrical inspections or certificates on file with the town. Tidd was never issued a certificate of occupancy for the structure. Another letter from Doyle stated a trailer Tidd was using to house other workers was not safe for year-round permanent occupancy.
A separate letter issued by the Cayuga County Health Department cited Tidd for not having an acceptable septic system for the structure. According to the health department's letter, human waste is directed to a manure lagoon on the property.
Tidd was given a month or more to fix the violations outlined in the violation letters or face fines or legal action. Six months later, Fuentes said, nothing has changed but Tidd has not been fined by either agency.
"He was given a chance," Fuentes said. "Because of these violations, he should have been fined and he has not been fined. He has been given a lot of opportunity. Unfortunately this is what's happening now and we think the only way this is going to change is if he is fined."
When contacted by The Citizen in July, Owasco Town Supervisor Ed Wagner and Cayuga County Environmental Health Director Eileen O'Connor both said further action was not taken against Tidd because inspections by Owasco code enforcement showed the structure was unoccupied and therefore not a violation.
But Fuentes, Hernandez and several other volunteers also met with Cayuga County Public Health Director Kathleen Cuddy and Wagner Tuesday to give them the letters written by the anonymous farm worker and Hernandez. Cuddy and Wagner both assured the group that they would continue to investigate the situation, which Fuentes called "sad."
"Obviously we understand that he has a business and he needs workers but that doesn't mean he should disregard the law," she said. "We represent the interest of the workers."
In addition to the violations from local agencies, Melrose Farm is currently being investigated by the state Department of Environmental Conservation for violating clean water regulations.
In May, a DEC spokesperson told The Citizen that the agency was investigating the farm "for potential violations of New York State Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) requirements." On Tuesday, the DEC confirmed that it is still "pursuing the owners of Melrose Farm to address permit violations." CAFO regulations are in place to "ensure proper management of nutrients while increasing water quality protection," according to the DEC's website.
Employees have also accused Tidd of not paying them the wages they were owed.
In February, a former employee at Melrose Farm, Lady Mazariegos, said Tidd had not paid her all of her wages over several weeks. Fuentes said she has also been helping another former Melrose Farm worker, Estela Calderon, file a complaint with the state Department of Labor against Tidd, claiming he owes her wages. Calderon used to work at the farm with her teenage daughter Selena Hidalgo-Calderon, who was found dead on a farm in Wayne County in May. Hidalgo-Calderon's young son Owen is still missing. Authorities believe the young mother was killed by her boyfriend.
The state Department of Labor did not respond to The Citizen's request for more information about any complaints against Melrose Farm or Tidd.
Tidd declined to comment Tuesday when asked about the allegations against him, though he did say, "I work on a daily basis with town of Owasco."