Nursery slams government for publicizing old case
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
A California nursery has agreed to pay $460,000 to settle alleged labor law violations, but a company executive said he feels blindsided by the federal government's publicity of the deal.
Sierra-Cascade Nursery of Susanville, Calif., settled with the U.S. Labor Department, which claimed the company owed back wages to farmworkers employed under the H-2A temporary worker visa program.
Without admitting to the allegations, the company has agreed to pay roughly $290,000 to compensate workers for back wages and about $170,000 in penalties and interest.
Steve Fortin, the nursery's president and chief operating officer, said the government's publicity has cast the company in a negative light without mentioning the alleged violations occurred more than five years ago.
"I think it was irresponsible and misleading," he said of the Labor Department's failure to mention the date of the alleged violations in its March 8 press release. "The release made it seem like we just violated."
Fortin said the nursery was accused of H-2A program violations in 2006, but a final determination wasn't made by the agency until 2007.
The company appealed but didn't hear from the Labor Department until late 2011, when it was given a choice to litigate or settle, said Fortin.
"We were left in purgatory, not knowing what's up," he said.
The length of time since the alleged violation, as well as the high cost of litigation, dissuaded the company from further challenging the government, said Fortin.
"How well are we able to defend ourselves at that point when we're talking about hundreds of people in another country?" he said.
According to the Labor Department, an investigation found that the nursery provided 430 workers with incomplete copies of their contracts and changed the original employment conditions.
The nursery was also accused of failing to maintain proper time records and inconsistently paying the workers for the time they spent waiting for transportation, the government said.
The agency said the nursery also discriminated against 23 workers who asserted their rights under federal laws and regulations.
Fortin said he was also disappointed the agency didn't mention that Sierra-Cascade Nursery has continued to use the H-2A program and has successfully complied with several audits since it first used the program in 2006.
"We work very hard to do it right," he said.
Rick Newton, district director of DOL's Sacramento office, said there's no reason to believe the nursery isn't in compliance with laws and regulations.
The process of interviewing and taking statements from former workers was time-consuming because many were in Mexico, said Newton. "It did take us a while to develop the facts of the case."
It's not unusual for the agency to issue press releases about significant cases, he said.
Newton said he understands the date of the alleged offenses is important to the nursery but said he couldn't account for the omission of that information from the release.
"It didn't really seem to us that it made much difference, I suppose," he said.