BRIGHTON — 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.
But despite repeated fines and violations, the same federal agency, year after year, continues to allow Palombo to hire and take advantage of seasonal workers.
The plight of Star Farms’ workers underscores the often exploitative nature of seasonal farm work in America. These migrant laborers, under the federal H-2A program, can only work for the employer who brings them into the country, making them captive and ripe for abuse, experts say. Unlike other laborers, they can’t hop to another job if the working conditions lag. Nor are they likely to speak up about mistreatment, leading the majority to suffer in silence.
“Once you find an employer, you don’t want to lose that,” said Jenifer Rodriguez, a veteran farm worker attorney who’s representing the Star Farms laborers. “Similar to undocumented individuals, these H-2A workers will put up with a lot more because they want to be able to come back.”
Palombo, in an interview, told The Post he “pretty much” pays all his workers on time. Clean water is always available, he said, and the bathrooms get cleaned every other day.
In July, he filed for Chapter 12 bankruptcy protection and court filings show he owes millions to creditors, including tens of thousands to dozens of his workers.
Lawsuits and investigations
Palombo has been growing vegetables in Colorado for more than 50 years. He grew up in Irondale, according to an online biography, working on the farm with his father. Together they used to take their farm-fresh produce to sell every morning in Denver’s Denargo Market.
In 1975, Palombo started Palombo Farms in Commerce City, adding a larger variety to his vegetable selection. Eventually, he rebranded to Star Farms, moving his operation to Brighton.
Sixty-five seasonal workers now work on the farm in Weld County, picking an assortment of produce, including green beans, cabbage, cucumbers and asparagus.
In addition to the farm, Palombo’s family operates Palombo Farms Market off of U.S. 85 in Henderson. The shop offers a colorful array of fruits and vegetables from his farm and other local operations, plus homemade mustards and dressings.
Shoppers at Safeway and Kroger-owned stores can also find Star Farms’ vegetables in local supermarkets.
“Buying local maintains jobs, sustains family farms and contributes to the state economy,” Palombo Farms Market says on its website.
But the workers who pick that farm-fresh produce for years have complained of poor treatment.
In 2006, the U.S. Department of Labor found nine violations at Star Farms, including five related to the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act. Another four concerned Occupational Safety and Health Administration infractions. The department fined Palombo nearly $6,800.
Four years later, federal labor investigators found 191 migrant worker violations, impacting 140 laborers. The department fined Star Farms $12,200 and ordered $123,330.54 in back wages to be paid to workers. (Public data on the labor department’s website only shows the number of violations and fines/back wages issued. The department has not responded to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Post seeking more detailed information on the violations.)
In 2010, the labor department listed Star Farms as a repeat violator of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Workers have sued Palombo and his company twice in federal court since 2008, alleging the farm owner failed to supply drinking water in the fields, provide clean restrooms and pay them on time.
The laborers’ attorneys in a 2015 case called it a “systematic abuse and exploitation of low-wage, seasonal, agricultural workers.”
Juana Armijo, a 54-year-old worker, said in the complaint that she had to bring her own knife to cut herbs because the farm wouldn’t provide her one. Workers received no gloves and no soap to wash their hands after using the restroom, the closest of which sat 20 minutes away.
Armijo’s supervisor, she said in the lawsuit, told her to just relieve herself in the cornfield.
She and another worker, Apolinar Valenzuela Ramos, both left the job without full payment. They only received money from Palombo after legal action.
In both the 2008 and 2015 federal lawsuits, Palombo agreed to settlements — $67,200 in all — in which he paid these workers and other laborers who also didn’t see regular checks. Court-ordered consent decrees also mandated that the farm owner provide clean drinking water and sanitary bathrooms, and pay his workers on time, moving forward.
The farm owner, though, still owes money from the 2015 settlement, said David Seligman, executive director of Towards Justice.
Palombo told The Post that since these cases were so long ago, he couldn’t recall the details.
“I’m not closing the farm”
It’s been nearly eight years since Palombo agreed to these terms in the second federal case.
But workers and their attorneys say nothing has changed.
The bathrooms still don’t get cleaned. There’s still no clean water. And, they say, the pay never seems to come on time.
In addition, Palombo illegally passes travel and visa costs on to the migrant laborers, the workers’ attorneys allege. In past years, he has demanded $2,500 in unlawful kickbacks to cover his expenses, they say.
When the Mexican worker who spoke to The Post does get paid, he said most of the money goes to paying back family and sending cash to his wife and children. There’s little left over for food, clothes or medical expenses.
It’s difficult, he said, to find another H-2A employer. So even though conditions are rough — living with six others in a two-bedroom apartment — he comes back year after year to Star Farms.
“I don’t have any alternatives,” he said in Spanish through a translator.
Palombo told The Post that he doesn’t pass off costs to his employees and that he pays them regularly. He even allows workers to borrow money from him, he said.
“Tell them to come and see me and we’ll find out what happened,” Palombo said.
The demand letter from the workers’ lawyers says Star Farms’ conduct violates the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Colorado Wage Claim Act and H-2A visa regulations. Palombo’s actions, they allege, also constitute civil theft and may amount to a violation of federal and state trafficking protections.
“More fundamentally, your failure to pay wages has had catastrophic consequences for our clients, with many of them experiencing severe food shortages as they struggle to afford basic necessities and many feeling scared and threatened to continue working for fear that if they do not, they will never receive the wages they have already earned,” the attorneys wrote.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Labor said the federal agency has an ongoing investigation into Star Farms but declined to elaborate.
Palombo, while speaking to a Post reporter on Thursday, said investigators were at the farm talking to workers.
Bankruptcy filings show Palombo running in the red. The farm reported $2.86 million in assets and $3.58 million in liabilities. Nearly 70 workers have filed wage claims, ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 each. Other creditors include the Colorado Department of Labor and Unemployment and the Colorado Department of Revenue.
Palombo told The Post that the bankruptcy represents a reorganizational tool. He said he plans to hire H-2A workers again next year.
“I’m not closing the farm,” he said.
Limited options for visa holders
Despite repeated violations of federal law, the labor department continues to allow Palombo to remain in the H-2A program. A 2016 BuzzFeed News investigation found the department rarely bans companies from the program, even after egregious conduct.
Government audits have found the Labor Department has an “inability to consider debarment” — or ban companies — for the most severe offenders, the news agency found. Sometimes it blocked its own employees from investigating whether companies were breaking the law.
H-2A employers are “more likely to get hit by lightning” than to be debarred, Greg Schell, a Florida lawyer who has represented guest workers for three decades, told BuzzFeed.
A 2020 study by the Economic Policy Institute found more than 70% of federal labor standards investigations of farms detect violations, ranging from wage theft to inadequate housing and other infractions.
But with one wage and hour investigator for every 175,000 workers, the federal labor department likely misses a wide swath of violations, the study found.
“Farm employers can violate wage and hour laws and reasonably expect that those violations will never be detected,” the authors noted.
The Department of Labor last week announced proposed new rules aimed at boosting protections for seasonal workers.
Nearly 4,000 people came to Colorado this year under the H-2A program, performing agricultural jobs for 330 employers.
Even in an industry rife with abuse, Palombo is “definitely one of the repeat bad actors,” said Rodriguez, the longtime Colorado farm workers’ attorney.
The fact that these workers continue to toil, even without pay, is not uncommon, she said. Laborers believe that if they complain, they won’t be asked to return the following year. The boss might even tell other farms not to hire them.
Meanwhile, workers who aren’t being paid feel that their only chance to recoup the money is to stay, Rodriguez said.
“Their options are really limited if they wanna come back on an H-2A,” she said.
The Mexican worker wonders if he’ll return to Colorado next year and do this all over again.
“If things don’t get fixed,” he said, “probably not.”
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