Our View

Over the last two years we’ve written several editorials taking the U.S. Department of Labor to task over its attempts to circumvent the due process rights of farmers.

The story is familiar to readers. Department inspectors show up in blueberry fields at harvest time and tell producers that they’ve found serious violations of wage-and-hour rules, and threaten to declare the crop as “hot goods.”

The “hot goods” provision prohibits companies from shipping goods produced or harvested in violation of labor laws. In 2012, the department threatened to invoke the provision against three Oregon blueberry growers.

They were given the option to admit their guilt and pay huge fines, or await an administrative hearing as their crops rotted. They paid $230,000 in fines and shipped their berries.

A federal judge has since expressed doubts the settlements were voluntary. We called it state-sponsored extortion an tyranny.

Now it seems the department has a new trick.

The Wall Street Journal editorialized last week on the latest shenanigans the DoL is pulling, this time on Midwestern grain farmers through the efforts of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

According to the Journal, OSHA investigators have shown up at two family farms in Nebraska and Ohio to inspect their grain handling and storage facilities. Violations were found, citations written and fines assessed — $130,000 in one case.

It seems pretty straight forward, except federal law prohibits OSHA from regulating farming operations with 10 or fewer employees. Neither of the farmers who have gone public have anything close to 10 employees.

OSHA got around the prohibition and claimed jurisdiction by redefining the farms as grain handling operations. The Journal says OSHA bosses came up with the scheme in 2010 and instructed inspectors how to circumvent the statutory ban.

To bolster its authority, in one case OSHA asserted that the farm’s storage bins and handling equipment were separate from the farming operation because they weren’t located in the fields where the grain was grown.

Such facilities are ubiquitous features on farms from the Corn Belt to the Pacific Northwest. That they be centrally located near the farmstead and not scattered throughout what are often times leased fields does not make them separate operations for regulatory purposes.

OSHA backed off when a former secretary of agriculture — Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb. — and the Journal started asking questions. Johanns has put together a bipartisan coalition of 43 senators who have asked Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to knock it off and follow the law.

That’s certainly a reasonable expectation. But we won’t be surprised if we see these schemes and other unscrupulous enforcement tactics employed wherever crops are grown, harvested and stored.

The administration has proven itself adept at unilaterally rewriting laws it finds inconvenient, at reinterpreting rules it finds too narrow, and employing coercive tactics as needed to extend the reach of its regulators and bureaucrats.

It’s the Chicago way.

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