Columbia Gorge inspections reported
Growers advised to contact an attorney if investigators arrive
By MITCH LIES
A Portland lawyer has learned that the U.S. Department of Labor is inspecting Columbia Gorge farmers for potential labor violations.
Tim Bernasek, a lawyer specializing in agriculture with the Portland law firm Dunn Carney, said March 1 he received phone calls from several farmers in the gorge in the past week who were inspected.
"I am aware that this past week (U.S. Department of Labor investigators) were conducting investigations and inspections of farmers in the Columbia Gorge area," Bernasek said.
Bernasek would not disclose the names of the farms.
Calls to the U.S. Department of Labor public affairs offices were not returned as of press deadline.
The inspections are raising red flags among farmers. Last summer, the agency extracted just under $240,000 in fines and back wages from three Oregon blueberry farms for alleged minimum wage violations, despite the fact the violations were never substantiated, according to Dave Dillon, executive vice president of the Oregon Farm Bureau.
The farms paid the agency after inspectors threatened to prevent their berries from entering commerce under the "hot goods" provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Bernasek advised farmers to post their farms with "no trespassing" signs and to contact an attorney the moment investigators arrive.
"The minute you are aware they are conducting or plan to conduct an investigation, you have absolutely got to contact your attorney," Bernasek said. "It's not something you want to negotiate yourself."
Bernasek said that unless investigators have a warrant for inspections, farmers can legally prevent agents from entering farms that are posted.
Even if the agency has what is known as an investigative warrant, Bernasek said, it is vital that farmers contact an attorney to make sure agents are following terms of the warrant.
"I did have interactions on behalf of clients this week to narrow the scope of the investigation," Bernasek said.
He said it is not always advisable to prevent agents from entering farms.
Bernasek said it is doubtful the agency will slap hot goods orders on farms at this time of year, given that few farms are shipping product.
"It's not a tool I would expect them to use now," he said. "It's not effective unless you're shipping product."
Bernasek said it is unusual, but not unheard of, for the agency to inspect farms in winter months.
"To the extent that there is some employment going on at this time of year, I suspect there are compliance issues they are interested in inspecting," he said.
He said he is not aware of the agency issuing any hot goods orders in Oregon or Washington since last summer.