Posted: Monday, March 18, 2013 5:25 PM
Mateusz Perkowski/Capital Press
Ruben Rosalez, left, regional administrator for the Western region of the U.S. Labor DepartmentÕs Wage and Hour Division, and Michael Hancock, right, the divisionÕs assistant administrator for policy, met March 18 with members of the farm community about Òhot goodsÓ orders placed on perishable crops.
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
PORTLAND -- U.S. Department of Labor officials say they stand behind the agency's controversial decision to halt shipments of blueberries from several Oregon farms in 2012.
Inspectors were "frankly taken aback" by the three farms' "systemic, widespread violations" and were justified in invoking the "hot goods" provision of federal labor law, said Michael Hancock, assistant administrator for policy at the agency's Wage and Hour Division.
"I'm not going to second-guess that judgment," Hancock said at a March 18 meeting with farmers, worker advocates and others in Portland, Ore. "I think what they did last year was the right thing to do."
Under the "hot goods" provision, 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 blueberry 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 also collectively paid $76,000 in penalties and back wages to reach a similar deal.
Farm groups and several members of Congress opposed the Labor Department's approach, saying it violated farmers' due process rights and forced them to settle rather than let their crops spoil.
Dave Dillon, executive director of the Oregon Farm Bureau, said the meeting did not provide the answers he was seeking.
"There was nothing discussed here today that addressing the fundamental undercutting of due process," he said. "The message I got here today is expect more of the same."
During the meeting, Labor Department officials were asked several times why they didn't put proceeds from the crop into an escrow account, which would have allowed farmers to dispute the allegations without risking their fruit.
Hancock said this was a possibility that had been used in the past, but is not "appropriate in every instance."
The agency's goal isn't only to recover back wages for workers but to stop the employer from gaining an unfair advantage over competitors by violating labor laws, he said.
"It's not a simple matter of collecting money," Hancock said.
The Labor Department also wants to discourage the employer from future non-compliance with labor laws, said Ruben Rosalez, regional administrator for the Western region with the agency's Wage and Hour Division.
When asked about the potential for using an escrow account instead of halting shipment, Rosalez said the agency can be more flexible if the employer does not deny there is a problem.
"It changes the dynamics of the case," he said.
If an employer agrees there is a problem, it can be fixed -- but if he does not, that creates the potential for continued non-compliance, Rosalez said.
In last year's cases, the farmers were all free to ship their crops but voluntarily chose to settle the allegations, said Hancock. If they hadn't, the agency could have pursued an injunction or restraining order in federal court.
If a farmer ships a crop despite the agency's warning, "the goods remain hot" and a court can impose an injunction against the grower's downstream customers, he said.
Dillon of the Oregon Farm Bureau said he was concerned by the Labor Department's positive characterization of the incidents, such as the speed at which farmers agreed to settle.
"The communication to the growers at the time did not include the word 'voluntary,' either verbally or in the correspondence they got," he said.