Earlier this month, the Capital Press first reported about tactics being employed by the U.S. Department of Labor against Oregon berry farmers that subvert the growers' due process rights to challenge alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
It's time for the department leadership to go on the record and explain their methods.
Teams of labor inspectors are visiting berry farms during harvest. They pore through employee records and time cards, interview workers and document conditions covered by department regulations.
Shortly after, producers are told violations have been found, and that their fruit has been made "hot goods" under the FLSA.
The 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 are stuck. To get the designation lifted in time to deliver their crop, growers have to pay a fine and sign a consent agreement admitting guilt. Otherwise, they can wait for an administrative hearing that will come long after the crop, and perhaps their businesses, are lost.
Members of Oregon's congressional delegation want answers, and we hope they have better luck than we did.
We've made several unsuccessful attempts to get someone from the Department of Labor to comment on the record about its methods. We thought an administration pledged to transparency would be anxious to explain itself.
But department officials in Portland, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., declined to be quoted on the record.
In a background interview not for attribution, the department pointed out that growers presented with the option voluntarily signed the consent agreements. We don't think an admission made under the threat of bankruptcy can be described as voluntary. It's impossible to judge the legitimacy of the allegations if a confession is coerced and the case is never adjudicated.
Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., said labor officials in Washington, D.C., told him the department only uses the hot goods order provision in the most egregious situations. But he said that doesn't match what he's been told about the growers visited by the department.
"My understanding is neither of these guys have that history," Schrader said. "Farmers shouldn't be coerced to sign away their rights or go to court without any discussion with Department of Labor folks."
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said the department's tactics are on par with other Obama administration regulatory efforts to "run roughshod" over private businesses.
"This allows for virtually no appeal and sticks the growers with huge penalties," he said. " We are trying to dig into why they are using these extraordinary measures."
Legitimate violations must be corrected, and appropriate punishments meted out to violators. Certainly the department has methods at its disposal that procure justice for workers and guarantee the due process rights of those accused.
If the department has a legitimate complaint, it shouldn't be afraid to make its case in public.