US Department of Labor debars Washington orchard operator who verbally abused, threatened foreign farmworkers; violated federal workers’ program
SEATTLE – The U.S. Department of Labor has debarred an East Wenatchee orchard operator for three years from participation in a federal program that allows employment of temporary agricultural workers from outside the U.S. after investigators determined that the employer provided unsafe and unhealthy housing, failed to provide work promised in workers’ contracts, and subjected workers to verbal abuse and threats.
An investigation by the department’s Wage and Hour Division found significant violations of the H-2A agricultural worker program requirements by Welton Orchards and Storage LLC, which resulted in the employer’s debarment from participation in the program. Specifically, violations included the following:
- Did not meet safety and health requirements for housing, including having mattresses on the floor and failing to have working smoke detectors.
- Failing to pay workers for inbound and outbound transportation from their home countries.
- Not offering the work hours detailed in workers’ contracts, which left them unable to provide for themselves for months at a time.
- Failed to contact U.S. workers in its recruiting efforts.
- Not paying visa-related fees to several workers.
Investigators also found Welton Orchards and Storage frequently targeted H-2A workers with abusive and offensive language, and routinely threatened to send them back to Mexico. The employer initially failed to provide required records to investigators, then later provided incomplete records. Investigators supplemented the limited records with information gathered from workers.
In addition to debarring the employer from the H-2A program, the department assessed $64,120 in fines for the egregious nature of the violations found. The division recovered $7,485 in unpaid wages for 26 employees.
“Welton Orchards and Storage intimidated and threatened workers and put their livelihoods at risk as they violated many provisions of a federal program designed to assist the nation’s agricultural employers,” said Wage and Hour Division District Director Thomas Silva in Seattle. “Their three-year debarment from the H-2A program demonstrates that the Department of Labor will safeguard U.S. jobs, prevent abuses by unscrupulous employers and protect vulnerable workers from working in substandard conditions.”
By some estimates, more than three million migrant and seasonal farmworkers are employed in the U.S. They provide the majority of the much-needed farm labor on farms across Washington and throughout the nation, spending weeks away from home and supporting the U.S. agricultural industry.
The division credited the Northwest Justice Project for its assistance in the Welton Orchards’ investigation. NJP is Washington State’s largest publicly funded legal aid program, providing civil legal assistance and representation to promote the long-term well-being of low-income individuals, families, and communities.
“The assistance provided by the Northwest Justice Project to restore the rights and protect the dignity of the agricultural workers in this case has been invaluable,” explained Silva.
In fiscal years 2020 and 2021, the Wage and Hour Division investigated 735 cases with H-2A violations and recovered more than $9 million in back wages for more than 13,000 workers. It also assessed $9.5 million in civil penalties to employers for violations of federal labor laws.
The H-2A program allows agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring nonimmigrant foreign workers to the U.S. to perform agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature. To learn more about the H-2A program and other laws enforced by the Wage and Hour Division, contact the division’s toll-free helpline at 866-4US-WAGE (487-9243).
The division enforces the law regardless of a worker’s immigration status and can speak confidentially with callers in more than 200 languages. Learn more about the Wage and Hour Division, including a search tool to use if you think you may be owed back wages collected by the division. Download the agency’s new Timesheet App, now available for android devices, to ensure hours and pay are accurate.