OKANOGAN, Wash. — The U.S. Department of Labor conducted surprise inspections of at least four tree fruit growers in Okanogan County the week of July 9.
“It’s a repeat of what occurred three to four years ago when DOL was inspecting farms and farm labor camps and wrote quite a few frivolous citations and hefty fines,” said Dan McCarthy, secretary of the Okanogan Horticultural Association and a Tonasket grower.
It’s typical for DOL Wage and Hour Division comprehensive investigations to take up to two months and usually cover compliance with laws and regulations concerning wages and hours, housing, transportation, sanitation and worker rights, said Dan Fazio, director of WAFLA farm labor association in Olympia.
“If we know of four of them, there probably are eight,” he said.
Wage and Hour investigators choose a different area of the state to inspect each year, he said. Last year it was Yakima and previously it’s been the Columbia Basin, southwest Washington and Okanogan, he said.
All four growers being investigated are WAFLA members and are being advised by WAFLA, he said.
The growers are in Okanogan, Omak and Pateros, McCarthy said.
“In the last go around, they would inspect and then all but threaten you to sign a statement saying you were in violation of some area but would not tell you what. Then later they would send you a notice of what you were in violation of and a fine. So there was no due process,” McCarthy said.
“These tactics are not popular with growers,” he said.
McCarthy said he has contacted U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., congressman for the Okanogan, and hopes the new Trump administration eventually changes things.
It’s too soon to know if that will happen because the new administration doesn’t have its policy people in DOL yet except at the very top, Fazio said.
Fazio and McCarthy scheduled a July 19 meeting for growers in Okanogan to advise them on what to do and not do if contacted by DOL. They invited DOL to the meeting.
Meanwhile, Ernie del Rosario, an Ellisforde grower, said DOL issued findings against him a couple of months ago from a 2013 audit and want him to pay $186,000 in back wages he says he doesn’t owe. DOL will not give his attorney the rationale for the findings, he said.
del Rosario said growers are angered by the new DOL investigations.
Leo Kay, DOL spokesman in San Francisco, would not say how many DOL inspections or investigations are occurring in Okanogan County. He said DOL does not discuss current investigations.
“Investigators strive to treat employers and workers alike with respect and fairness when looking into potential wage violations,” he said.
In May 2016, DOL sought to distribute $385,318 to more than 1,000 workers that it received in court judgment against Blue Mountain Farms, Walla Walla, for alleged violation of minimum wage and overtime laws in 2013.
In August 2015, a Mesa, Wash., grower said he felt manipulated and unfairly fined $16,000 to lift a DOL seizure of his apples on allegations of children working in his orchard. The grower said he never tried to employ children but that sometime pickers can’t find day care.