OLYMPIA, Wash. — Many agricultural employers in Washington may unwittingly be unlicensed farm labor contractors, increasing their potential legal liabilities, because of a court decision last April, the head of the Washington Farm Labor Association says.
A federal court in Eastern Washington ruled that Northwest Management, an orchard management company, is a farm labor contractor because it received fees from John Hancock Insurance Co. for managing orchards, said Dan Fazio, director of the Farm Labor Association in Olympia.
The ruling was a side issue in a wage and hour dispute but caught the attention of attorneys for large tree fruit companies, Fazio said. There are hundreds of agricultural employers in the state, large and small, that could be implicated, he said.
“These are not farm labor contractors, but they risk being caught up in a poorly written law,” Fazio said. “In some cases they are vertically integrated companies with a common payroll department. In others, it is just the way an orchard or vineyard is organized for tax purposes, but it looks like they many need to become registered farm labor contractors to comply with Washington law.”
That opens a whole new level of regulation including posting farm labor contractor bonds with the state Department of Labor and Industries and getting workers to sign forms recognizing they are working for a farm labor contractor, Fazio said.
The Farm Labor Association is seeking an opinion from L&I that the true definition of a farm labor contractor is narrower than the court ruling, Fazio said. That may or may not help in court and so the Farm Labor Association has asked the Washington Farm Bureau to pursue a legislative fix, he said.
The Washington Farm Labor Contractor Act has a private right of action provision, meaning a worker or someone on his behalf can file suit if an employer is not registered. If the plaintiff is successful, the farmer would owe a minimum of $500 per violation per worker, plus attorney fees. The minimum fine for an employer with 100 seasonal workers would be $50,000, but Fazio said that the cost would likely be five times that amount or more.
The association has posted a management briefing on its website explaining the situation and is urging its members to send them potential scenarios to share with L&I.