Those who lament the lack of bipartisanship in Congress would have been heartened by the reaction of members of the House Subcommittee on Horticulture to testimony by a Department of Labor official on his agency’s use of “hot goods” provisions of federal labor law.
Members of both parties took the department to task for tactics that deprived farmers of their due process rights.
The hearing focused on DOL’s actions in 2012, when the agency accused three Oregon blueberry farmers of violating the federal minimum wage law.
The agency threatened to block shipment of their crop as unlawfully produced “hot goods” unless they agreed to pay $240,000 in fines and alleged back wages.
To avoid spoilage of their fruit, the farmers agreed to the hefty settlements and waived their right to challenge the agency’s findings in court.
However, two of the three farms later sought to void those consent decrees.
A federal judge overturned those deals earlier this year, finding they were unlawfully coercive.
Expressing the sentiment of his colleagues, Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., said the DOL “coerced farmers into forfeiting their rights by threatening their very livelihoods.”
David Weil, administrator of the agency’s Wage and Hour Division, was unapologetic.
Weil disagreed with the committee members’ characterization that the tactic is coercive.
He noted that investigators didn’t actually declare the berries “hot goods.” That would have required a court order and a great deal of proof.
They merely said they had cause to seek an order, and would notify the producers’ customers that the goods could be declared “hot goods.”
“I wouldn’t call it threatening employers or farmers,” he said.
It’s a distinction without a difference. Without having to actually prove its case, the DOL effectively blocked shipment because no buyer will risk a crop that may later be impounded.
At that point, the growers “voluntarily” agreed to settle.
It’s disappointing that Weil and his gang at Labor can’t see what has been all too clear to Congress, the courts and everyone else who has heard the tale. When you hold a gun to someone’s head, their compliance is anything but voluntary.
Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., the subcommittee’s chairman, said DOL is using its “hot goods” provisions as a tool of fear and intimidation.
“I quite honestly think you’re trying to teach that farmer a lesson, that if you stand up for your rights, we’re going to pummel you,” said Scott. “You know you can spend that farmer into bankruptcy.”
Few, if any, businesses and individuals enter disputes such as these on anything close to an equal footing with the federal government.
Those under suspicion have only the right of due process under the law to shield themselves from the government.
No matter how it seeks to contort the language to justify its extralegal machinations, the DOL threatened growers with economic ruin, forcing them to forgo their rights and admit guilt.
Last week, Republicans and Democrats recognized the DOL’s tyranny. We hope they take action to rein it in.