Inspections expected to increase in wake of hiring push
By DAN WHEAT
PASCO, Wash. -- The U.S. Department of Labor is making unannounced calls on farmers asking for their records, but farmers can require written requests for appointments, the head the Washington Farm Labor Association says.
Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division inspectors showed up May 8 at two potato and onion grower-packers in the Pasco area asking for wage and hour and employment eligibility verification records, said Dan Fazio, association director.
The inspectors wanted immediate access but, following Fazio's advice, the farmers asked the inspectors to send letters of request, Fazio said. After some discussion, the inspectors left, he said.
"The Department of Labor has done this the last several years, on and off. Sometimes they send scheduling letters, sometimes not," Fazio said. "We anticipate more because they have hired more inspectors in Washington and Oregon."
The law does not require the department to send letters or schedule appointments in advance, said Sonia Melendez, a department spokeswoman in Washington, D.C. Federal law allows inspectors to initiate unannounced investigations in order to directly observe normal business operations and develop factual information quickly and spot violations, she said. Employers do have up to 72 hours to provide records to investigators that are not readily accessible at the investigated worksite, Melendez said.
The department has the right to inspect wage and hour and I-9 records but courts have ruled that it has to have a reasonable inspection program, Fazio said. The law allows employers three days to assemble the records, he said.
For inspectors to show up unannounced and expect farmers to drop everything they are doing and look for records is not reasonable, he said.
Further, records do not have to be maintained on site, so for inspectors to show up unannounced and ask for them makes no sense, Fazio said.
"Agents may tell you that you have to let them enter and conduct an investigation, but this is not in fact the case," he said.
"We're fine if they want to subpoena the records, but they want to ask workers questions, which they have a right to do, and look at housing and that's all time-consuming," he said.
Inspections typically occur during the growing season. Last season, inspectors focused on H-2A guestworker visa compliance and child labor, he said. The department was pushing new child labor regulations but has now dropped them.
The Department of Labor advertised for 10 new Wage and Hour Division investigators in Washington and 10 new ones in Oregon six months to a year ago, Fazio said.
Nationwide, 400 additional investigators were authorized in 2009, bumping the total number from 700 to 1,100, he said.