BRIGHTON, Colorado — The seasonal workers from Mexico stoop in oppressive summer heat, bending low to cut cucumbers bound for farmers markets and produce aisles at Colorado’s big-box grocery chains.
The laborers come to Star Farms every year on temporary visas, part of the federal government’s H-2A program that allows U.S. employers to hire foreign workers for critical agricultural jobs.
From 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., they till the soil and tie the vines. Others thin, prune, seal, pack and load cabbage, peppers, onions and other vegetables.
But despite federal regulations, workers and their lawyers say the farm’s owner does not provide them with clean water, forcing them to buy and bring their own. The bathrooms on-site, they say, sometimes go months without being cleaned. With little option, they allege, workers feel compelled to urinate and defecate in the fields.
On top of that, they say the workers at Star Farms haven’t seen a paycheck in seven weeks.
“Every year it’s the same,” one laborer told The Denver Post through a translator. The 28-year-old father of two, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said that, without his regular income, he’s been forced to borrow money from family in order to eat. His wife and children back in Mexico wonder why he’s still there. “This year they said it would change. But it’s a lie — we come and it’s the same thing all over again.”
For nearly two decades, Star Farms and its owner, Angelo Palombo, have repeatedly stolen wages from migrant employees and violated federal labor laws, according to interviews and a Denver Post review of court documents and inspection reports. In one 2008 investigation, the U.S. Department of Labor found 191 violations of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act.
All told, Palombo has been hit with at least $209,000 in penalties and back-wage repayments as part of federal investigations and settlement agreements in civil lawsuits.
Now, the federal labor department says it’s once again investigating the farm. The workers’ attorneys, in a new demand letter, are calling for the Colorado attorney general and state labor department to open their own probes.
“You continue to exploit these workers and profit off their work while refusing to pay them the wages you have stolen from them,” attorneys from Towards Justice and Colorado Legal Services wrote in the demand letter to Palombo on Monday.
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