Farmers who provide housing to their workers can be subject to an array of laws at the federal, state, and local level. The following chart provides a glimpse of these laws:

Chart of Worker Housing Laws

It can be a challenge for farmers to navigate this web of laws! It’s particularly difficult given these laws can vary from state to state and even county to county. The following sections highlight some key points to keep in mind.

Side note: To learn more about your state and local laws, a helpful place to start is to contact your local Extension agent. Farmers also often find it beneficial talking to other local farmers who provide housing to their workers. There’s no sense in re-creating the wheel.

Side note: Farmers who provide housing to workers can do so without tying it to the employment relationship. They might instead choose to create a separate landlord-tenant relationship where the worker signs a lease and pays the farmer separately for rent. Note that under the landlord-tenant scenario, that relationship is entirely separate from the employment relationship. Certain laws might limit the farmer from requiring the worker to leave if the employment relationship ends.

Section 9: Check zoning and state/local health code requirements when providing worker housing

Most, if not all, zoning ordinances have something to say about housing and occupancy of residences. Some zoning laws include restrictions on how many people may live on the property or how many non-related people may live in a single residence. Zoning laws could also have limitations or prohibitions on temporary structures such as RVs, tents and yurts.

The bottom line is: farmers who provide housing to their workers will need to look into their zoning ordinance to be sure their plans coincide with what is permitted under local laws. While farmers could play the game of wait and see, they run the risk of incurring costly fines and disputes down the road. They could even be forced to take down a structure that doesn’t comply with the ordinance. One approach would be to get a copy of the ordinance and read it yourself. However, these ordinances are not always a fun and straightforward read. (Darn!) Farmers could also ask neighbors or other farmers who house workers. Or, they could call the local zoning office to ask their questions directly.

In addition, farmers who provide housing to their workers are generally responsible for making sure the housing meets sanitation and safety standards established in the state or local public health code. The required housing standards might include the condition of structures, the available water supply, the sewage disposal system, toilet and bathing facilities, cooking and eating facilities, sleeping accommodations and laundry and trash disposal facilities. Farmers wanting to learn more about the state health code standards for agricultural worker housing can review their state’s public health code themselves or contact their state’s department of health or department of labor for more guidance.

Section 10: Insure for damage and injuries when providing worker housing

Workers who live in farmer-provided housing will be considered tenants for insurance purposes. A general farm liability policy or homeowner’s policy generally will not cover the full scope of the landlord-tenant relationship.

Farmers providing housing to workers will want to talk to their insurance agent to be sure they have adequate coverage, especially if a worker-tenant or their guest gets injured on the property. Most likely, the farmer will need a landlord or rental dwelling policy to provide increased protections. These types of policies provide coverage for physical damage to the rented structure. They also offer coverage for personal property that may be left on-site for maintenance or the tenant’s use, including appliances. Perhaps most importantly, a landlord or rental dwelling policy would include liability coverage if a tenant or one of their guests gets hurt on the property. Otherwise the farmer would be responsible for any legal fees and medical expenses.

Section 11: Understand federal Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) implications when providing worker housing

Farmers must be aware that by providing housing to their workers, they may subject their farms to an inspection under the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act, commonly known as OSHA. Although OSHA is not generally enforceable against smaller farms, that exception does not apply when housing is provided in a “temporary labor camp.” Temporary labor camps are defined broadly. Basically, they include any housing that is provided to a temporary worker as a condition of employment. In other words, it’s a temporary labor camp if the worker, for all intents and purposes, has no other choice than to live in the housing provided by the farm based on the location or other circumstances of the job. For example, this could be the case if the farm is in a rural area and there’s practically no other affordable place to live nearby. If this is the case, the farmer will want to be sure that they are in full compliance with OSHA housing standards.

Farmers wanting to learn more about OSHA enforcement when providing housing, as well a basic overview of the housing standards, can refer to Appendix C—OSHA Impacts When Providing Housing to Farm Workers.

The US Department of Labor oversees OSHA compliance in most states. Farmers can contact the federal OSHA offices in their region for more information. In addition, many state Departments of Labor provide free, on-site OSHA consultation services to eligible employers. Farmers can search your state department of labor and OSHA consultation to learn more.

Side note: A state agency, not the federal DOL, oversees OSHA compliance in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and also Puerto Rico. Farmers in these states can contact their state’s department of health or related agency for more information.

Section 12: Understand federal Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA) implications when providing worker housing

When a farmer provides housing to “migrant workers,” the farmer may subject the farm to the federal Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (called the MSPA) requirements. Despite what many farmers may believe, “migrant workers” are not limited to out-of-state or foreign farm workers. Migrant workers include anyone who must stay overnight away from their regular home to make it feasible for them to work on the farm. A migrant worker could be someone who regularly lives just an hour or two away from the farm, if such a lengthy drive makes it impractical for them to fulfill their obligations on the farm each day they’re required to work.

A few exemptions to the MSPA are available. Just as for the federal minimum wage exemption, farms that have fewer than 500 man-days in each calendar quarter of the previous year are exempt. In addition, farms that are exclusively owned and run by a single farmer or his or her immediate family members (i.e. legal spouse, children – whether biological, step, adopted or foster – and parents) are also exempt. Finally, if the housing provided is also provided to the general public, the farm is exempt from having to comply with the MSPA.

Farmers who provide housing to “migrant workers” and don’t meet one of the available exemptions must comply with the MSPA requirements, which includes maintaining certain housing conditions and following recordkeeping and disclosure requirements.

Farmers wanting to learn more about the MSPA requirements can refer to Appendix D. Farmers can also contact their state’s department of health, which generally oversees migrant labor housing compliance and enforcement in their state.