U.S. Department of Labor Obtains Consent Judgments Against Grower and Recruiting Agents for Endangering Workers’ Lives in Housing Encampment
PHOENIX, AZ – After a June 2017 U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division (WHD) investigation found 69 Mexican guest workers living in a life-threatening housing encampment at an El Mirage farm, the U.S. District Court of Arizona in Phoenix has entered judgments against a grower and its recruiting agents for violations of the H-2A guest worker program.
Under the consent judgments, the court has ordered G Farms LLC, owner Santiago Gonzalez, and agents Jesus Raul Leon and LeFelco to take specific steps to ensure strict compliance with the terms of the Department’s temporary worker programs.
WHD discovered G Farms guest workers housed in converted school buses, truck trailers, and a shed that were overcrowded, unsanitary, and inadequately ventilated, even as daytime temperatures exceeded 100 degrees. In addition to those conditions, investigators found G Farms and Leon set up kitchen facilities in another converted school bus, with combustible gas lines dangling through windows.
During its investigation, G Farms and agents LeFelco and Leon falsely represented to the Department that they would house the guest workers in 30 hotel rooms, each with a refrigerator and a microwave.
“The violations of the clear and straightforward requirements of the H-2A visa program represented one of the most severe dangers to human life that we have seen,” said Janet Herold, Regional Solicitor. “The Department moved immediately to ensure these workers’ safety. We have zero tolerance for such abuse, and the misconduct and misrepresentations to both domestic and foreign workers in this case is what exacerbated the harm.”
“These judgments make clear that the Department of Labor will use all enforcement tools available against major agents involved in illegal labor practices, abuse of workers, and systemic visa fraud,” said Eric Murray, Wage and Hour Division District Director in Phoenix. “Our work continues to protect employees and to level the playing field for law-abiding employers.”
This is not the first time that LeFelco and Leon used misrepresentations to assist employers with obtaining guest workers. In recent years, Department investigations into LeFelco, Leon, and their clients in the construction and agricultural industries have revealed multiple instances of visa fraud and abuse of the H-2A and H-2B guest worker programs. These cases have already resulted in back wage and civil money penalty assessments approaching $1 million.
Under the consent judgments, LeFelco, Leon, and anyone acting together with them are now subject to punishment for contempt of court if they file any false or unsubstantiated applications under any guest worker program. Under the terms of its consent judgment, G Farms is required to provide all workers with a notice of their rights and a work contract in their native language at the time of hire.
Additionally, the employer must provide housing that complies with detailed standards designed to ensure that workers have a safe place to live while working in the U.S. G Farms also must pay employees for all the hours that they work, including time spent traveling from the employer-provided housing to the worksite. As with Lefelco and Leon, G Farms is subject to punishment for contempt of court for any future violations of any guest worker program.
The H-2A temporary agricultural program establishes a means for agricultural employers, who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers, to bring non-immigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature.
The program requires an employer to attest to the Department that it will offer a wage that equals or exceeds the highest of the following: the prevailing wage for the occupation and geographic area, applicable federal minimum wage, state minimum wage or local minimum wage. This wage will be paid to the H-2A workers and certain similarly employed U.S. workers during the entire period of the approved labor certification. The program also establishes recruitment and displacement standards to protect similarly employed U.S. workers.
For more information about the H-2A program, the Fair Labor Standards Act and other federal wage laws, call the Wage and Hour Division’s toll-free helpline at 866-4US-WAGE (487-9243). Information also is available at https://www.dol.gov/whd.