Foreign students, fetid quarters

Delmarva Farms lied on pay, living conditions, summer workers say

September 07, 2002|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

THE STENCH — When the door opens at the barracks-like building near Catonsville, the first thing that's evident is the smell - the thick, sickening smell of sewage.

The stench - along with a carpet stained with effluent - is what greeted about two dozen foreign students who made their home at 6601 Johnnycake Road for nearly three months this summer while they worked selling vegetables from the backs of trucks for Delmarva Farms of Catonsville.

The students from England and Romania are gone now. Many have returned home, and the remaining half-dozen were scooped up late Thursday by a convoy of neighbors who offered refuge until the youths return to their homelands.

The rescue mission came after Baltimore County inspectors visited the property earlier that day and issued a citation listing five separate violations, from maintaining illegal living quarters to having what amounted to an unlicensed junkyard. A $126,000 fine was imposed on the owner and a hearing on the complaint is scheduled for Oct. 22.

"It's been condemned," said Robyn Clark, a Baltimore County code inspector, who confirmed yesterday that all the students were gone from the property.

James Lerch, owner of the Johnnycake Road property who said his wife ran the vegetable business, maintained that he was unaware of any code or zoning violations. "As far as I know the property is zoned for a hotel," Lerch said.

He blamed many of the problems at the property on the students. "This is the first time in three years that anyone's complained," said Lerch. "We've had some problems this year," he conceded.

The sewage back-ups, said Lerch, were the result of the students' misuse of toilets and sink drains. He said he paid to have the drains snaked nearly a half-dozen times over the past three months. "These Europeans don't understand about flushing the toilet. They put everything down there," he said.

Many of the students who came to Catonsville left angry and frustrated, contending they were lied to about their jobs, pay and living and working conditions. They were charged $850 each, including a $150 security deposit for the housing, they said, and the money was deducted from their paychecks.

"We had all these jobs to pick from ... and we picked this one," said Tassa Cannon, 20, shaking her head. Cannon, who came from England, and others said they were lured to a job with Delmarva Farms by a Web site that pictured smiling workers and neat, clean living accommodations.

"Complete lies," said Cannon.

"You read all this stuff and you think, `It's true. It's America,'" said Phillipa "Pip" Pemberton, another student from England.

Lerch said the students were angry because they didn't earn as much money as they expected, and said that was not his fault. The students worked on a commission system that some said shortchanged them.

Some students earned less money because they arrived late due to visa delays, Lerch said. And, he added, the drought cut short the growing season, forcing him to shut down roadside operations several weeks early. The company sold vegetables at more than half a dozen sites from Columbia to Towson.

"If there's no product, there's no product. I don't control the drought," said Lerch. "What other summer job is there where you can make $6,000? Last year one boy made $11,000."

When inspectors visited the property, they found about 80 cars and trucks - some registered, some not - filling a space between the two buildings where the students were housed. There were also two chickens.

The students said that the vehicles they were assigned to drive to sales locations were unsafe. They mentioned failing brakes and windshield wipers that didn't work. Pemberton said that when the brakes failed on a car she was driving and she hit another vehicle, Lerch took a total of $450 out of her subsequent paychecks to cover the damages. She said that as a result, several recent paychecks were reduced to zero.

Later, she demonstrated how she had to climb through the door window of a pickup she also drove for the company. She sat on a tomato box placed over the sinking seat cushion. Lerch denied there were safety problems with his vehicles. "I have a regular preventative maintenance program," he said.

State health inspectors also visited the site yesterday, and department spokeswoman Karen Black said the investigation into possible code violations was continuing.

The plight of the students is the latest in a series of problems to emerge this summer in the government-sanctioned work/travel program known formally as J-1, which was created to encourage international cultural exchange. Students receive visas permitting them to work three months and travel for a fourth.

Complaints range from students brought to Maryland to work in fast food restaurants who ended up with a paycheck of zero, to those in Milwaukee who discovered promised jobs and housing did not exist.

David and Regina Hodgson, who headed the rescue convoy Thursday, said they were shocked to see the living conditions of the students. "It's worse than you can imagine," said Regina Hodgson. "It's disgusting."

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