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Ashland, Nebraska, produce farm owes 94 workers more than $68K in back wages, US Labor Department investigation finds
More than $89K in penalties also assessed for H-2A violations
ASHLAND, Neb. — Farmworkers harvesting melons, cucumbers, pumpkins and squash on a Nebraska farm labored long hours to put fresh produce on Midwestern tables, but were denied the wages they earned and were legally entitled to receive when their employer failed to follow the law.
U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division investigators found that Heldt Produce Inc. in Ashland did not pay temporary foreign guest workers properly and paid U.S. workers, who worked alongside them, even lower hourly rates. The farm's actions violated H-2A Temporary Agricultural Employment of Foreign Workers Program provisions. The investigation led Heldt to agree to pay 94 workers $68,898 in unpaid wages for their work. The farm will also pay $89,700 in civil penalties for willful violations of wage laws.
"The agricultural industry employs many low-wage, vulnerable and transient workers of whom employers take advantage. These workers are often victims of labor violations and disparate treatment," said Karen Chaikin, regional administrator of the Wage and Hour Division in Chicago. "The department is committed to protecting the rights of all workers employed in this country. This case shows we will use all tools available, including penalty assessments, to remedy violations, promote accountability and ensure a level playing field for law-abiding employers and legitimate users of foreign-worker programs."
Investigators from the division's Des Moines and Omaha District Offices found that Heldt violated the following H-2A temporary agricultural employment program provisions and the Fair Labor Standards Act:
- Unlawfully allowing a labor broker to demand and receive recruitment fees. Some workers paid a fee to a recruiter in Mexico to obtain a job.
- Failing to pay workers the rates stated in their contracts for all hours worked during the certified period of employment.
- Neglecting to pay travel expenses for foreign workers' trips to and from the U.S. to perform the job.
- Failing to provide employees copies of work contracts.
- Collecting an illegal transportation fee from workers.
- Failing to pre-inspect temporary housing units to ensure they were safe.
- Not keeping accurate records of all hours worked.
- Failing to provide earnings statements to employees for each pay period.
- Neglecting to pay wages due to foreign and U.S. workers.
The Immigration and Nationality Act authorizes the lawful admission of temporary, nonimmigrant workers to the U.S. to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature under the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Employment of Foreign Workers Program.
The employer must pay all covered workers at least the highest applicable wage rate in effect at the time work is performed. Additionally, employers must provide housing at no cost to H-2A workers and to laborers in corresponding employment who are not reasonably able to return to their residence within the same day.
Employers must also provide daily transportation between the workers' living quarters and the employer's work site at no cost to covered workers living in employer-provided housing. If not paid in advance or otherwise provided, the employer must reimburse workers for reasonable costs incurred for travel from their home country to the job site once the worker completes 50 percent of the work contract period.
H-2A employers must also provide employment to any qualified, eligible U.S. worker who applies for the job opportunity until 50 percent of the period of the work contract has elapsed. Employers must offer U.S. workers terms and working conditions which are not less favorable than those offered to H-2A workers.
For more information about the H-2A program, the FLSA and other federal wage laws, call the Wage and Hour Division's toll-free helpline at 866-4US-WAGE (487-9243) or the division's Omaha office at 402-437-5794. Information also is available at http://www.dol.gov/whd/.