By DAN WHEAT
U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour inspectors may use "hot goods" orders against alleged labor law violators more aggressively in Oregon than in Washington, a former inspector says.
In meetings with employers and worker advocates in Portland on March 18 and Seattle on March 19, DOL officials defended the department's use of hot goods injunctions suspending shipments of blueberries last year for alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Three Oregon blueberry farmers agreed to pay almost $240,000 in fines and back wages for alleged minimum wage violations to keep shipments moving before they spoiled. DOL coerced the payments in violation of the farmers' right of due process, the Oregon and Washington Farm Bureaus have said.
The Seattle meeting was more focused on outreach and education and less on use of hot goods orders in enforcement than the Portland meeting, said Manny Lopez, a former Wage and Hour inspector, who attended the Seattle meeting. He said he did not attend the Portland meeting but was going on reports about it.
"The Seattle office is not as hot on hot goods as Portland. I heard Portland will not ease up, but be even more," Lopez said.
But Deanne Amaden, DOL spokesperson in San Francisco, said the message was the same in Portland and Seattle while the audience in Seattle drove the conversation toward outreach. DOL has increased enforcement but has no set number of investigations a year, another DOL spokeswoman said.
A bill introduced by Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., to prevent hot goods orders from being used on perishable crops, is good but stands little chance of passing, Lopez said.
Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association, said he wants DOL to provide copies of its policies and procedures and discuss them openly. He said DOL did not agree to that but tentatively set outreach meetings for the week of May 20.
"I asked DOL to tell us who they would target for inspections and they refused," he said.
Growers should train workers that DOL inspectors are not permitted on farm property, Fazio said. His organization offers hot goods training.
Scott Dilley, associate director of government relations at the Washington Farm Bureau, said he was pleased DOL held meetings but that nothing changed.
Hot goods injunctions are not appropriate for perishable crops, but DOL is moving ahead with them with "potentially disastrous results" for growers of cherries and berries, Dilley said.
DOL is focused on minors working illegally and "ghost workers," that is multiple people working on the same ticket, Dilley said.
"DOL assumes there are ghost workers based on amounts picked on one ticket and we question that. Violations should be documented, not based on assumptions," he said.
It remains to be seen whether DOL's Portland office will be more aggressive than Seattle's office, Dilley said. They have different directors who may have different ideas on enforcement, he said.
DOL's Portland district covers Oregon, Vancouver, Wash., a narrow strip of Washington along the Columbia River and southern Idaho. The Seattle district includes the rest of Washington and northern Idaho.
"Regardless of which district is better or worse, I would have loved to hear them say they would not use hot goods orders on perishable commodities," he said.
DOL is scaring employers into thinking they can't employ minors but they can, Lopez said.
Children 12 to 16 can work under time and hazardous occupation restraints and can be paid less than minimum wage if they work less than 13 weeks, Lopez said. Migrant minors working the same farms as their parents and getting the same piece rate as other workers are exempt from minimum wage, he said. Some work on the same tickets as their parents for ease of payment since they don't have their own bank accounts, Lopez said.
DOL has other tools it can use -- like liquidated damaged, civil money penalties and debarment of farm labor contractors -- instead of using hot goods orders, he said.