submitted by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development
Housing for migrant farmworkers is a subject rarely discussed, or even thought of, throughout most of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Surprising to many, there are currently over 260 migrant labor camps permitted by the Virginia Department of Health spread out over the entire state and this is actually a considerable reduction from previous years. When hearing the term “migrant labor camp” some will picture a group of trailers or even tents on a farm where seasonal farmworkers live during harvest time and in some instances that scenario may actually exist. However, that would actually be the exception rather than typical.
The Code of Virginia defines Migrant Labor Camp as “one or more structures, buildings, tents, barracks, trailers, vehicles, converted buildings, and unconventional enclosures of living space, reasonably contiguous, together with the land appertaining thereto, established, operated or used as living quarters for one or more persons, one or more of whom is a migrant worker engaged in agricultural or fishing activities, including related food processing.” The definition also excludes a summer camp, campground or hotel as defined in § 35.1-1 of the Code of Virginia; housing that, in the ordinary course of business, is regularly offered to the general public on a commercial basis and is provided to any migrant worker on the same or comparable terms and conditions as provided to the general public; and small businesses that are exempt under federal law as provided in the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Migrant and Seasonal Worker Protection Act.
While barracks, bunkhouses and even trailer parks are not uncommon, it is also not unusual for a migrant labor camp to be one or more single-family homes. In many cases, these are farmhouses or guest houses located on a farm where the owner no longer resides and provides as farmworker housing instead.
Rules and regulations governing the construction and maintenance of Migrant Labor Camps (12VAC5-501) have been promulgated by the State Board of Health to ensure that safe and healthy living conditions are provided for migrant workers and their families while they are employed and living in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The chapter establishes standards and procedures that the State Health Commissioner will follow in determining whether a permit to operate a migrant labor camp should be issued, denied, revoked, or suspended. In a similar way the chapter also delineates the procedures and requirements with which a camp must comply in order for the camp operator to obtain and retain a permit.
The State Board of Health has the responsibility to promulgate, amend and repeal regulations necessary to protect the public health, the State Department of Health is designated as the primary agent for the purpose of administering these regulations and the district or local health department is responsible for implementing and enforcing the regulatory activities required by these regulations.
The Migrant Labor Camp regulation references the occupational safety and health (OSHA) standards governing temporary labor camps and states that all newly constructed migrant labor camps shall comply with the Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code (USBC). While the
requirement to comply with the USBC appears to be straightforward and simple, it can and has created some confusion for camp owners, operators, Building Officials and Registered Design Professionals for various reasons. The most obvious is that it states “all newly constructed”. Does that mean a remodel, renovation, addition or perhaps change of occupancy is not subject to the VUSBC?
The short answer is no; all construction and changes in the use of buildings or structures in the Commonwealth of Virginia, unless specifically exempted, is subject to the VUSBC. However, there are challenges to compliance with the VUSBC while concurrently complying with the Migrant Labor Camp regulations and the referenced OSHA standard.
An example of this is a recently discovered conflict in regards to insect screening. The referenced OSHA standard section 29CFR 1910.142(b) (7) states that all exterior openings shall be effectively screened with 16-mesh material and screen doors are to be equipped with self-closing devices. In accordance with the VUSBC, pivot and side-hinged swinging doors shall swing in the direction of travel where serving a room or area containing an occupant load of 50 or more persons. In a barracks or multi-dwelling unit building, exceeding an occupant load of 49 persons is certainly not unheard of and meeting both criteria is not possible without adding a vestibule or a screened-in porch. In some cases, neither option is feasible. In cases such as this, where a conflict exists between the VUSBC and the OSHA standards, there are other options to resolving the conflict.
The regulations outline procedures for the State Health Commissioner or his designee to grant a variance and in a case such as described above this is likely the better option due to the life safety implications. The USBC also grants the local Building Official the authority to approve a modification upon application from an owner or owner’s agent provided the spirit and functional intent are observed and public health, welfare and safety are assured. In some cases, this is the better option and should certainly be given consideration. Collaboration between stakeholders is the key to resolving any conflicts between the OSHA standards and the USBC. It is to the advantage of all stakeholders including camp owners, operators, design professionals, the local health department and the building department to work collaboratively to ensure that safe and healthy living conditions are provided for migrant workers and their families while they are employed and living in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development
600 E. Main St. Suite 300
Richmond, VA 23219