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News Release

Federal court affirms US Labor Department finding that Tri-Cities blueberry farms unfairly paid workers

Judge orders growers to pay $385K to blueberry field workers

SEATTLE – After years of denial, obstructions and legal battles, a group of Washington State blueberry growers admitted that they systematically violated the rights of their agricultural workers, including failing to pay the minimum wage and overtime pay, in the 2011, 2012 and 2013 growing seasons.

Two-and-a-half years after the U.S. Department of Labor filed suit, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington entered a consent judgment in favor of the Secretary on all counts, requiring the growers to pay a total of $385,318 in unpaid wages and liquidated damages to pickers and packing shed workers. A department Wage and Hour Division investigation found the growers, including Blue Mountain Farms, deprived workers of minimum wage and overtime pay, violations of both the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Migrant Seasonal Worker Protection Act. The growers must also pay $20,000 in civil monetary penalties to the federal government. 

In 2013, investigators discovered the growers were paying hundreds of “shadow” workers off the books in Walla Walla County fields: workers had no tickets to track how much they had picked, and they received no paychecks. Many workers who did appear on the company’s records were systematically denied overtime pay despite working long and regular overtime hours.

The growers first tried to deny access to their fields when agency officials started their 2013 investigation. The department obtained a court order to force Blue Mountain to give investigators immediate access and to cease interfering with the investigation. At the investigation’s conclusion, Wage and Hour Division officials advised the growers they found sweeping violations of federal law. Despite the evidence, the growers denied violations had occurred, refused to correct their practices or to pay workers the full wages they earned.

In the consent judgment approved by the court today, the growers admit that they violated federal law in all of the ways that the division found nearly three years ago. Specifically, the growers admit that:

  • They used a system in which multiple workers were picking berries on a single ticket, making it appear that the berries “counted as having been harvested by one person.” The growers had no records of the hours worked or wages paid to employees working on shared picking tickets.
  • The employer did not pay the promised wage, which was the Washington state minimum wage, to some of their workforce.
  • Growers did not pay their workers laboring in the packing shed the legally required overtime premium of time-and-a-half despite the long hours worked. 
  • Blue Mountain “unlawfully impeded officials of the U.S. Department of Labor by denying them access to their fields where employees were harvesting berries for the growers.

In addition to paying back wages and penalties, the growers are required to participate in wage and hour training, inform all employees of their rights under federal law and properly record all employees’ hours throughout each shift.

“The U.S. Department of Labor is committed to ensuring that the rights of all workers are protected, and when necessary will ask the courts to enforce the law to end exploitation of vulnerable workers, including agricultural workers,” said Janet Herold, the department’s Regional Solicitor. 

“We are pleased that Blue Mountain finally admitted their systemic violations of federal law and have agreed to ensure that their hard-working harvest workers are no longer exploited by working them off the books, in the shadows. The department will continue to ensure that agriculture workers’ rights are protected,” said Ruben Rosalez, Regional Administrator for the Wage and Hour Division.   

Enforced by the division, the FLSA requires employers to pay covered, nonexempt workers at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour for all hours worked, plus one-and-one-half times their regular wages for hours worked beyond 40 per week. Employers also must maintain accurate time and payroll records.

The MSPA protects migrant and seasonal agricultural workers by establishing employment standards related to wages, housing, transportation, disclosures and recordkeeping. The act also requires farm labor contractors to register with the U.S. Department of Labor.

For more information about federal wage laws administered by the Wage and Hour Division, call the agency’s toll-free helpline at 866-4US-WAGE (487-9243). Information also is available at http://www.dol.gov/whd/.

Read this news brief en Españól.

Agency
Wage and Hour Division
Date
February 4, 2016
Release Number
16-0276-SAN
Contact: Leo Kay
Phone Number
Contact: Jose Carnevali