Speaking at the AFL-CIO’s quadrennial conference last week, U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez referred to his agency as the “Department of Opportunity” for its efforts to restore the middle class through its policy initiatives and enforcement of wage and workplace safety laws.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, Perez promised he would not hesitate to aggressively use the department’s regulatory authority to accomplish his goals.
Because he’s relatively new to the job — he took over on July 23 — Perez may not be aware that farmers, ranchers and processors have long been subjected to the aggressive use of the Obama Department of Opportunity’s regulatory authority and enforcement powers.
Opportunity isn’t always a good thing.
Last year several Oregon blueberry growers had the opportunity to have their due process rights subverted and submit to state-sponsored extortion.
The department threatened to declare the growers’ berries “hot goods,” grown, harvested and packed in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Even the threat of the designation would keep customers from accepting the berries, putting millions of dollars worth of perishable product at risk.
That’s when the growers were given the opportunity to admit their guilt, pay a hefty fine and have their “hot goods” trouble go away without watching their crop rot as they awaited months for an administrative hearing.
The department extended the same opportunity in Washington state this season, but were stymied by an uncooperative grower and an unsympathetic federal judge.
Early in the president’s first term, growers and processors who use the H-2A visa program to ensure they have a legal workforce had the opportunity to work under rewritten rules that made it far more difficult to get needed workers.
Those using the program had to prove they made extensive efforts to hire domestic workers, which included placing help wanted ads within a four-state radius. At the height of the recession, Growers and processors report getting plenty of applicants, but only a small number who were qualified. Few of those actually hired lasted more than a few days.
Additionally, the new rules required extensive new paperwork for each worker hired.
In 2011 the Department of Opportunity floated a reinterpretation of accepted regulations to “increase the parity between the agricultural and nonagricultural child labor provisions” of federal law.
In plain language, the department sought to deprive all but the oldest teens the opportunity to work on their family farms and learn the business from parents, grandparents and other extended family members. Bipartisan outrage at the proposal, and the administration’s desire to keep from offending voters during the re-election campaign, caused the department to back off.
We take Perez at his word, and expect he will vigorously wield his regulatory and enforcement authority in the remaining years of the president’s term.
We await with bated breath the new opportunities his tenure will provide the agricultural community.