By MITCH LIES
Oregon's congressional delegation is trying to talk with top U.S. Department of Labor officials to learn why the agency is using what Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., termed "extraordinary measures" in enforcing labor laws on Northwest farms.
"This is way over the top," Walden said of the DOL tactics. "This allows for virtually no appeal and sticks the growers with huge penalties. We are trying to dig into why they are using these extraordinary measures."
Walden said he is working with Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., who is trying to contact the chief of staff of the U.S. Department of Labor. Calls to Schrader's office were not returned by deadline.
DOL is blocking the shipment of perishable fruit from Northwest farmers it accuses of labor violations and threatening to hold the goods until the producer pays a fine and signs a consent agreement admitting guilt.
Producers who contest the allegations must schedule an administrative hearing and risk losing their crop in the meantime.
At least two Oregon farms recently were subjected to the enforcement tactic, according to the Oregon Farm Bureau. The tactic is authorized under the "hot goods" order provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Walden said frustrations over recent tactics by federal enforcement agencies isn't isolated to farmers. Business constituents in and out of agriculture have complained that federal agencies are using strong-arm techniques to regulate laws, he said.
"There seems to be a pervasive attitude in the Obama administration agencies to run roughshod over private industry," he said. "This is an arrogance that is unacceptable in the federal service that needs to be tamped down."
Walden said labor law violators should be penalized, but the crime should fit the punishment, and producers should be allowed due process.
"You don't have to give them the death sentence," he said.
Farms subjected to a so-called "hot goods" order risk losing a substantial portion of their annual revenue, the Farm Bureau said.
Walden said he grew up on a cherry orchard and understands the necessity to pick crops when they are ready and to get fresh fruit to market in a timely fashion.
"You are dealing with a lot of issues in the middle of harvest," Walden said. "The last thing you need is some bureaucrat showing up to shut you down without any due process."
Walden said the House is working to prevent passage of unnecessary regulations that crimp industry.
"We've passed some bills in the House that would suspend any new regulation until the economy approves," he said.
The House has passed a bill requiring a vote of Congress on any new regulation, he said. And House Republicans are attempting to hold back agency funding for programs that threaten business.
"We're using every tool we have in the box, but the bureaucracy seems to have a bigger toolbox," he said.
"The agency needs to get some common sense, and that is what we need to help them find a path to," Walden said.