Investigators from the U.S. Department of Labor are using aggressive enforcement actions against growers in Washington state, employing heavy-handed tactics against farmers who dare assert their rights.
Although not entirely surprising given the experience of Oregon producers last season, the Labor Department has managed to add a new twist.
Last year the agency threatened to invoke the "hot goods" provision of federal labor law against three Oregon blueberry farms for alleged minimum wage violations. Product designated as "hot goods" can't be shipped, accepted by a commercial cold storage facility, bought or sold. The threat of such a designation would keep commercial customers from accepting berries.
Growers were left with the choice of either paying a fine or losing their crop in a protracted legal battle. The Oregon growers settled for about $240,000.
Earlier this season DoL investigators began showing up at farms in Washington state, including Blue Mountain Farms in Burbank.
On July 23 investigators were given permission to enter Blue Mountain's packing shed and the fields where berries were being picked. When they showed up again the next day, they were denied access and told to leave. The farm said investigators were disrupting the harvest.
The department went to court to get a restraining order against the grower and force their way onto the farm. But given the grower's cooperation with the first inspection, and absent any evidence of violations, the judge denied the request.
As Blue Mountain's lawyers argued, nothing prevented the department from interviewing employees when their shifts had ended or otherwise agreeing to reasonable limitations to an onsite inspection so that harvest was not disrupted.
Instead, the agency has invoked the "hot goods" provision and asked Blue Mountain Farms 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 department did not respond to our reporter's request for information.
It seems to us that when the department couldn't make its case in court it invoked the "hot goods" provisions knowing that even the threat of such an action will keep customers from buying Blue Mountain Farms' fruit. It wants the grower to admit guilt and pay up -- all without ever having to present any evidence to support allegations of wrongdoing.
It's an end run around the due process rights of the grower. It's state-sponsored extortion.
In an earlier editorial we labeled such heavy-handed government action as tyranny. We stand by that assessment, wishing only we had a stronger word with which to describe this unreasonable use of power.