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Labor Department uses 'hot goods' provision against Washington farm

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Capital Press

A federal judge has denied the U.S. Labor Department's request for a temporary restraining order against a Washington blueberry farm that had allegedly barred agency inspectors from the property.

However, the agency has invoked the "hot goods" provision of federal labor law and asked Blue Mountain Farms of Walla Walla County, Wash. to cease shipping its fruit.

A letter from the Labor Department claims to "have found apparent minimum wage and overtime violations at the farm and packing house."

The agency has not provided any information about specific violations or why inspectors believe they occurred, according to a declaration filed by the farm's attorney, Tim Bernasek.

The agency alleges that Blue Mountain Farms of Walla Walla County, Wash., "unlawfully resisted, opposed, impeded and interfered with officials of the Department of Labor assigned to perform an investigation, inspection, or law enforcement function," the complaint said.

Blue Mountain Farms countered that the Labor Department was seeking "an unfettered right to conduct a warrantless search, irrespective of the impact the search may have on Blue Mountain's business operations during the critical harvest period," according to a court document.

The Labor Department claims that when investigators initially arrived at the farm on July 23, they were given permission to enter a packing shed and fields where blueberries were being picked, according to a declaration filed by Manuel Lucero, assistant district director at the agency.

The Labor Department officials were unable to finish their investigations before workers finished for the day at 12:30 p.m., preventing them from ensuring the packing shed was safe and verifying that labor laws were being followed, according to Lucero.

Investigators returned on July 24 but a representative of the farm told them to leave the property and threatened to call the county sheriff and allege criminal trespassing if they tried to enter, Lucero alleged.

According to Blue Mountain Farms, the Labor Department agreed to minimize disruption to the harvest by limiting the number of workers to be interviewed, but then reneged on the agreement.

"DOL's position was that they could access any field and could conduct as many interviews as they wanted," the farm said in a court document.

Blue Mountain Farms argued that the temporary restraining order was unjustified because the agency failed to show it was irreparably harmed, especially since the company tried to cooperate with inspectors.

"Moreover, there is nothing to suggest that plaintiff could not obtain the same information simply by interviewing employees when their shifts have ended or otherwise agreeing to reasonable limitations so that harvest will not be disrupted," the farm said.

According to the agency's motion for a restraining order, Labor Department officials are allowed to inspect packing sheds and open fields where migrant and seasonal agricultural workers are found.

"Federal investigators are not required to obtain a warrant or other judicial order before conducting an investigation or inspection of a covered agricultural employer," the motion said.

The motion says that warrants aren't necessary because such inspections "take place in an agricultural employer's open fields and adjacent spaces in which they have no reasonable expectation of privacy to trigger the Fourth Amendment."

While Chief Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson has sided with the farm regarding the temporary restraining order, the Labor Department is still seeking a preliminary injunction that would give inspectors access to the property.

A telephone hearing on that request is scheduled for Aug. 7.

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