Prompted by concerns of the Oregon congressional delegation over rough enforcement tactics used against berry growers last season by labor inspectors, the U.S. Department of Labor last week conducted a forum in Portland with farmers to clear the air.
Growers came away from the meeting certain that they can expect more of the same this season.
Last summer teams of labor inspectors visited Oregon blueberry farms during harvest. They pored through employee records and time cards, interviewed workers and documented conditions covered by department regulations. Shortly after, at least three producers were told violations had been found, and that their fruit could be declared "hot goods" under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
A "hot goods" designation means that wholesalers, processors or retailers who buy the crop can be liable for financial penalties. The fruit can't be sold, can't be shipped by commercial carriers, and can't be accepted by commercial cold storage companies.
The farmers were stuck. Had the department obtained an injunction, growers could have waited six months or more for their case to reach the court. By then their crop, and likely their business, would have been ruined.
So they quickly admitted "guilt" to what they thought were trumped up charges, paid hefty fines and shipped their berries to market.
Ruben Rosalez, regional administrator for the Western region with the agency's Wage and Hour Division, admitted that the department has other, less coercive means at its disposal. For example, growers could have been allowed to put money in escrow against any subsequent penalties levied by an impartial judge.
Rosalez said the agency can be more flexible as long as an employer doesn't deny there is a problem. So, to paraphrase, if a grower professes innocence the department takes steps to ensure that the consequences of exercising their rights are more onerous than submitting.
The Inquisition and the Salem witch trials offered suspects the same deal, demanding they put aside any pretense of innocence, confess their sins and accept a harsh punishment that would be far worse if accusers were forced to prove their case.
The "hot goods" order almost certainly guaranteed financial ruin to a grower, guilty or not. In that light, it's absurd to suggest the growers' admissions were voluntary.
Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., has introduced legislation that would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act, exempting perishable goods from hot goods orders. That's what it's going to take to force the Department of Labor to respect growers' rights.
We have no sympathy for growers who break the law. But those who believe they are innocent shouldn't face losing their livelihood by choosing to exercise their rights.
We have in the past described the department's tactics as extortion, and likened it to the Chicago mob's protection rackets. But that suggests a garden variety criminality that can be put down by a government committed to the rule of law and the due process rights of all its citizens.
When perpetrated by that government, it's tyranny. Unless Congress acts, more growers across the Northwest will feel the department's coercive boot on their throat.