Federal court orders labor contractor to pay more than $1M in back wages, penalties after investigations find repeated violations of farmworkers’ rights
SANTA MARIA, CA – A federal court has entered a consent judgment that orders a Santa Maria farm labor contractor to pay more than $1 million in back wages and penalties after the U.S. Department of Labor found the employer again violated regulations of the H-2A agricultural worker program.
The judgment in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California follows three investigations by the department’s Wage and Hour Division into the employment practices of Rancho Nuevo Harvesting Inc. Investigators found the central California agricultural employer underpaid workers, violated numerous requirements of the H-2A program and made false statements under penalty of perjury during the program’s certification process.
Specifically, investigators found that while contracted to provide agricultural workers in Ventura, Fresno and Riverside counties, Rancho Nuevo Harvesting did the following:
- Failed to provide meals on Sundays and supplied farmworkers with insufficient and spoiled food.
- Housed farmworkers in quarters that failed to meet safety and health requirements.
- Did not provide safe transportation to and from housing sites and work locations.
- Failed to pay outbound transportation and subsistence when workers completed their work contracts.
- Did not meet the H-2A program’s three-fourths pay guarantee.
- Illegally sought meal and voluntary quit waivers from H-2A workers.
- Failed to state the terms and conditions accurately and completely in job orders and work contracts.
The recent findings are similar to H-2A violations by the employer that the department identified in four investigations, two in Arizona and two in California, in 2020 and 2023.
Division investigators also determined Rancho Nuevo purposely made false statements in the H-2A certification process. While stating repeatedly in H-2A applications that they would provide each worker with either three meals a day, seven days a week or free and convenient cooking and kitchen facilities, the contractor sought meal waivers from workers for Sunday meals.
“Temporary agricultural workers are often among the most vulnerable and abused in the nation’s workforce,” said Wage and Hour Division Regional Administrator Ruben Rosalez in San Francisco. “The outcome in this case should be a reminder to other farm labor contractors and growers of the costly consequences of violating federal regulations and that lying during an H-2A certification process can be grounds for debarment.”
In addition, Rancho Nuevo tried to avoid paying the amounts specified in the contracts by illegally seeking worker resignations when there was insufficient work.
The court ordered Rancho Nuevo Harvesting to pay $558,298 in back wages to 649 farmworkers. The court also ordered the employer to pay $475,211 in penalties for the repeated violations.
The court also permanently forbid Rancho Nuevo Harvesting from future H-2A program violations.
“These successful investigations and judgment underscore that the Department of Labor will take agricultural employers to court, if necessary, when they deliberately and repeatedly violate federal labor laws, abusing their workers so miserably by giving them spoiled foods, lying under oath and seeking illegal waivers,” explained Regional Solicitor Marc Pilotin in San Francisco. “This case makes clear that H-2A employers cannot have workers sign away their rights under the H-2A program and deprive them of the protections it provides.”
During the investigations, Rancho Nuevo Harvesting provided workers to harvest produce, including melons for Dulcinea Farms and Fisher Ranch, and celery for Duda Farms. In 2018, Fisher Ranch was ordered to pay back wages and penalties for violations of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act following a 2017 work-related motor vehicle incident that killed one worker and injured six others in Calexico.
In fiscal year 2022, the Wage and Hour Division recovered more than $5.8 million in back wages for 8,260 workers employed in the agricultural industry. After 879 investigations, the division assessed employers more than $7.9 million in civil money penalties for violations of federal regulations.
The division offers farmworker rights information, compliance assistance resources for employers and an agriculture compliance assistance toolkit to ensure compliance with the law. Employees and employers can also contact the Wage and Hour Division at its toll-free number, 1-866-4-US-WAGE (487-9243).
Workers can call the division confidentially with questions – regardless of where they are from – and the department can speak 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. Workers and employers alike can help ensure hours worked and pay are accurate by downloading the department’s free Timesheet App – now available in Spanish – on Android and Apple devices.
This news release is also available in Spanish.