Congress must rein in rogues
It took six months, but the U.S. Department of Labor has finally answered questions posed by members of Oregon's congressional delegation about questionable tactics employed last year by department inspectors.
The answers fall short, and demonstrate the department's willingness to continue to use coercive tactics that ride roughshod over the due process rights of farmers.
Last summer teams of labor inspectors visited Oregon blueberry farms during harvest. They pored through employee records and time cards, interviewed workers and documented conditions covered by department regulations. Shortly after, at least three producers were told violations had been found, and that their fruit could be declared "hot goods" under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
A "hot goods" designation means that wholesalers, processors or retailers who buy the crop can be liable for financial penalties. The fruit can't be sold, can't be shipped by commercial carriers, and can't be accepted by commercial cold storage companies.
The farmers were stuck. Had the department obtained an injunction, growers could have waited six months or more for their case to reach the court. By then their crop, and likely their business, would have been ruined.
So they quickly admitted "guilt" to what they thought were trumped up charges, paid hefty fines and shipped their berries to market.
We weren't alone in calling it extortion. Producers of perishable goods need due process that provides justice, not an empty victory.
The department's tactics raised questions for Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., a member of the House Ag Committee. On Aug. 17 he penned a letter to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis demanding answers. Fellow Oregon Democratic Reps. Peter DeFazio and Suzanne Bonamici, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Oregon Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley also signed the letter.
Acting deputy administrator Mary Beth Maxwell's reply came Feb. 8 and failed to impress Schrader.
"They did not address any of the due-process issues we dinged them on," Schrader said. "There are a lot of egregious things that they did not answer."
DOL said investigators "identified minimum wage violations, when growers allowed multiple workers to hand pick berries on a single employee's ticket and then paid only one worker the piece rate for each pound picked."
Schrader said he has learned the department based that allegation on no other evidence but the belief that it is impossible for one worker to pick a certain number of pounds in a day. In reality, it has become commonplace for workers to match and exceed that rate.
Maxwell said the farms voluntarily held their crops when presented with the allegations -- and the threat that investigators were next headed to court. Certainly, the growers would have had the opportunity to have their day in court. Even had they prevailed they could have lost everything.
Schrader said what may be needed is legislation to rein in "rogue investigations." We see no other way to stop the department from repeating and expanding the use of a tactic it has found so effective.