CHELAN, Wash. — U.S. Department of Labor surprise audits of Chelan Fruit Cooperative, its manager and several of its board members and growers apparently are turning out relatively well with only minor infractions and fines expected.
But the manager of neighboring Manson Fruit Cooperative, Doug England, said Chelan Fruit may see things differently when it gets the citations and fines.
Manson Fruit was audited more than a year before Chelan Fruit and inspectors left indicating only minor infractions were found, England said.
A couple months later, Manson Fruit and growers received notices and fines for small things that growers paid but the cooperative appealed several on principle, England said.
“We were cited for not prominently displaying a required work poster because one worker said she didn’t see it even though everyone else saw it and it was prominently displayed,” England said.
“We were cited for not physically presenting workers with a proposed contract when hiring them even though they were in California and we were in Washington,” he said.
DOL also classified some of the co-op’s workers as migrants even though they were full-time local residents, and had been for years, he said. That put the co-op into a different level of review, he said.
“Our fine was under $2,000. Growers had similar fines and paid theirs because they didn’t want to fight, but we appealed ours (within DOL) on a matter of principle,” England said.
It’s been months and he’s heard no response to the appeal, he said.
Jose Carnevali, a DOL spokesman in San Francisco, said the matter is ongoing and that he can’t provide information.
“They showed up out of the blue and went through all our payroll and found no problems. The sign posting is bogus. The only thing legitimate was no screen door,” England said.
“They demanded our grower list and hit all our board members for extremely minor things,” he said.
In July, Dan McCarthy, president of Okanogan Horticultural Association and a Tonasket grower, said DOL was auditing growers in Tonasket, Omak, Okanogan and Pateros and that growers were concerned.
DOL audits in Okanogan County several years ago resulted in “frivolous citations and hefty fines” without due process, he said. Growers were all but threatened to sign admissions of violations without knowing what they were specifically, he said.
The growers audited this year in Tonasket, Omak, Okanogan and Pateros were all Chelan Fruit Cooperative members, McCarthy said.
“The inspectors stormed into town and blew out and after that I haven’t heard anything. No news is good news,” McCarthy said.
Reggie Collins, general manager of Chelan Fruit Cooperative, said he, the cooperative and three of four other board members were audited starting in May and into July.
It was the first time the co-op had been audited by DOL in at least 17 years, he said.
“Everyone had little issues. Things on housing like screens (missing) on windows and doors and batteries in smoke detectors, but no real surprises or major fines. Everyone thought they (DOL) handled themselves professionally and it turned out OK,” Collins said.
There were also issues with formatting of payroll, and no one escaped without some infractions and fines, the dollar amount of which they do not yet know, he said.
The inspectors did not seem overly aggressive or agenda-driven, he said.
Dan Fazio, executive director of the farm labor association WAFLA, said some of the growers audited were WAFLA members and that WAFLA gave general advice and that he believes all audit findings were minor.
Fazio said he felt it inappropriate that DOL auditors asked Chelan Fruit for names of its members and that he advised the cooperative not to comply.
Collins said the co-op’s attorney thought it best to comply, so he did.