By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — The city is seeking new housing for the migrant workers who pick apples at city-owned Brooksby Farm, following complaints by a state inspector about the condition of the bunkhouse.
“The house was in need of significant repair,” Mayor Ted Bettencourt said.
Department of Labor inspector Jose Ocasio cited, among other things, concerns about sanitation in the toilet areas, doors that did not close correctly and problems with the grounds surrounding the L-shaped structure, which includes a trailer-like addition. Vehicles and equipment are often littered about the building.
The bunkhouse, located behind the large building that includes the Brooksby Farm store, housed more than half a dozen migrant workers from Jamaica. The number varies from season to season, and some of the workers have been coming to Peabody for two decades.
Bettencourt said he toured the building, too, and was unsatisfied with the living conditions. “The facility we have is old,” he said. “There was just normal wear and tear.”
He hopes to purchase modular housing to replace the current building or else locate the workers off site. “We’re looking at all of our options,” he said.
The cost of modular housing could run into six figures, according to Pat Kriksceonaitis, who runs the program.
Bettencourt stressed that state inspectors have been cooperative and “very fair with the city.”
But Kriksceonaitis said he was “frustrated, because we have been doing everything anyone has ever asked us to do.”
Both Kriksceonaitis and the mayor agree that the farm earns enough to justify the expense of replacing the housing. Bettencourt added, however, “It is an expense we were not prepared for. Any expense of this nature is not welcomed.”
The migrant workers, all men, come to Peabody to pick apples in a program that is 23 years old, according to Kriksceonaitis. Some of the same individuals have been coming all that time. “We’re actually getting the children of the first generation that worked here,” he said.
The bunkhouse includes multiple bathrooms, a kitchen, and six televisions, said Kriksceonaitis.
The migrant workers are essential to the farm, he added, because they are skilled workers, knowledgeable about the care of the apple trees, and able to pick the apples without bruising them. “If you don’t pick the fruit right, you don’t have a harvestable crop,” he said.
The farm uses migrant workers because there aren’t local workers willing and able to do the job.
“There aren’t too many skilled tree fruit people in New England,” Kriksceonaitis said, adding that most Americans like to go home at 5 o’clock, while migrant workers can work 90 hours a week during the peak harvest time, without overtime.
The Jamaicans come under the federal government’s H2A visa program, according to the mayor. Some work from April to October, others for three months. After a successful season, Kriksceonaitis estimates, the longest-serving men can go home with up to $17,000.
Kriksceonaitis worries that the need to replace the housing means might cause a delay in bringing them here, costing the men money.
He described his employees as “country folk” who mainly stay on the farm while here, despite the fact the city provides transportation. “They’re not the kind of people who go out to bars,” he said.
State officials refused comment, referring questions to the mayor.