The U.S. Labor Department must now consult with the USDA before halting crop shipments under the “hot goods” provision of federal labor law.
As part of the farm bill recently passed by Congress, the two agencies must consult “whenever DOL pursues an action that could lead to the restraining of shipments or the confiscation of ag commodities for suspected labor law violations,” according to a spokesman for Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore.
Schrader and Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga., wrote the language and were responsible for inserting it into the legislation.
Controversy over the Labor Department blocking shipments of perishable crops was sparked in 2012, when the agency threatened several Oregon blueberry farms with the “hot goods” provision.
The farms agreed to pay DOL about $240,000 to lift the “hot goods” objection and settle allegations of paying workers less than the minimum wage.
As part of the settlements, the growers had to waive their right to challenge the DOL’s accusations.
A federal magistrate judge recently recommended that the settlements be overturned because the farms had been unlawfully coerced.
Requiring Labor Department officials to discuss “hot goods” enforcement with USDA will hopefully have a “moderating effect” on the agency’s actions, said Dave Dillon, executive vice president of the Oregon Farm Bureau.
“The more scrutiny and visibility there is, the less likely they are to misuse it,” he said.
While the consultation requirement is not a“silver bullet,” it is “one more stone on the path” to ensure DOL doesn’t abuse its authority, Dillon said.
“The hope is that it achieves a process where the Department of Labor and the Department of Ag are working together,” said Dale Moore, executive director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation.
It remains to be seen how the USDA and DOL sort out the details of the arrangement, Moore said.
The farm bill language calls for the USDA to help the Labor Department consider the perishable nature of crops, the economic impact on farmers and the “competitiveness of specialty crops.”
DOL will also have to submit a report to two Congressional committees that describes how many times the agency notified crop buyers about labor law investigations of their suppliers between 2008 and 2013.
Moore said he hopes the report will shed more light on the economic consequences of DOL’s “hot goods” enforcement.