By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Officials from the U.S. Department of Labor plan to discuss labor practices with agricultural employers, workers and congressional staff in Portland, Ore., on Monday, March 18.
The subject of the forum will be ensuring "that workers are paid the wages they rightly earn and other adherence to federal laws," according to the announcement. Speakers are from the agency's Wage and Hour Division -- Michael Hancock, assistant administrator for policy, and Ruben Rosalez, regional administrator for the Western region.
Though the meeting announcement doesn't specifically mention "hot goods" orders, the subject has been a source of controversy with the farm industry since the Labor Department halted several shipments of perishable crops last year.
Under the "hot goods" provision of federal labor law, the agency can tell farmers that shipping their crop would be unlawful due to alleged violations of minimum wage, child labor or overtime regulations.
Last year, three farms in Oregon paid the Labor Department $240,000 to settle the charges and be allowed to ship their crops. A farmer and labor contractor in Washington each paid a penalty of $32,000 and together paid $12,000 in back wages to reach a similar deal.
Farm groups and several lawmakers and regulators opposed the Labor Department's approach, saying it violated farmers' due process rights and forced them to settle rather than risk losing crops.
More recently, several developments have re-ignited interest in the hot goods controversy, said Dave Dillon, executive director of the Oregon Farm Bureau.
The Labor Department has been recently conducting inspections in the Columbia Gorge area of Oregon, Dillon said.
The group has been advising growers to contact their lawyers, take photos of inspectors who don't abide by "no trespassing" signs and ask inspectors specifically which documents they request, he said.
The approach is a shift from the past, when farmers' were more receptive to agency inspectors, he said.
Since last summer, the Labor Department's use of the "hot goods" provision has come under criticism from Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., who recently criticized the agency's response to his questions about due process, Dillon said.
The Obama administration is also anticipating Senate confirmation hearings for the top positions at the Labor Department and the Wage and Hour Division, he said.
Whether these factors influenced the agency to hold the upcoming meeting is uncertain, though, Dillon said.
"I would hope the message would get through to them, but my experience with them leads me to temper that optimism," he said.