Wage and Hour Division (WHD)
U.S. Department of Labor
US Department of Labor plans for new blueberry season with continued enforcement initiative
2012 enforcement effort resulted in more than $100,000 in back wages, penalties
LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J. -- The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division is continuing its multiyear enforcement initiative in New Jersey’s blueberry industry, where it has previously found consistent and widespread labor violations. Blueberries are a significant commodity for New Jersey.
The division is committed to ensuring that workers employed in this industry are provided the workplace protections and wages to which they are entitled under federal law. Initiative efforts this year will focus on informing workers of their rights and increasing labor law compliance among blueberry growers, farm labor contractors and other related agricultural operations.
The division's Southern New Jersey District Office conducted 32 investigations of agricultural industry employers during the 2012 blueberry harvest. The division found violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act and provisions of the Occupational Safety and Health Act related to field sanitation and temporary labor camps. These violations resulted in more than $80,000 in back wages due to more than 850 workers, as well as the assessment of approximately $25,000 in civil money penalties.
The most frequent violations resulted from workers being charged for items, such as meals, snacks, and energy and sports drinks, in amounts well above what the employers—mostly farm labor contractors—paid for them. This reduced the workers’ wages below the wage owed, in violation of the MSPA. Other common violations of the MSPA and OSH Act include failing to disclose employment terms and conditions to workers; failing to maintain required employment and payroll records; failing to register as farm labor contractors; failing to obtain prescribed insurance coverage for transportation vehicles; allowing workers to live in unsafe housing facilities; using unsafe transportation vehicles; and failing to provide adequate field sanitation. FLSA violations resulted in some workers being denied proper overtime pay and one farm’s improper employment of an individual under age 12.
“Farm labor contractors and other agricultural employers cannot pay wages to workers and then take a portion of those wages back through excessive charges for food and drink. This is essentially a kickback scheme that deprives workers of their rightful wages,” said Patrick Reilly, director of the division’s Southern New Jersey District Office, which conducted the investigations and is located in Lawrenceville. “A key focus of our initiative is to educate employers about their legal responsibilities and to promote voluntary compliance with federal labor laws. By working with stakeholders, such as the New Jersey Farm Bureau, we are able to expand the reach of our compliance assistance efforts and help foster a vibrant and compliant local agricultural industry.”
As part of the initiative, investigators will continue to visit fields and packing houses throughout New Jersey during the 2013 harvest season to assess compliance among facility owners, growers, farm labor contractors and other business entities providing services to agricultural operations. Thorough inspections of migrant housing units, transportation vehicles, employer practices and pay records will be conducted to ensure compliance with all applicable agricultural labor standards. When violations are found, the division will pursue corrective action, including litigation and the assessment of civil money penalties, to recover workers’ wages and ensure accountability under the law.
The division will also continue to provide compliance assistance to employers and industry organizations and is reaching out to workers, community organizations and other stakeholders to encourage their participation in promoting industrywide compliance.
The FLSA requires that covered employees be paid at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Workers who are not employed in agriculture and not otherwise exempt from overtime compensation are entitled to time and one-half their regular rates of pay for every hour they work beyond 40 per week. The law also requires employers to maintain accurate records of employees’ wages, hours and other conditions of employment, and prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who exercise their rights under the law.
Most agricultural employers, agricultural associations and farm labor contractors are subject to the MSPA, which provides additional protections for migrant and seasonal agricultural workers by establishing employment standards related to wages, housing, transportation, disclosures and record keeping. The MSPA also requires farm labor contractors to register with the department. Information on the MSPA is available at http://www.dol.gov/compliance/guide/mspa.htm.
The field sanitation provisions of the OSH Act require covered employers to provide workers with toilets, potable drinking water, and hand-washing facilities at no cost to the workers, and to allow reasonable use of the facilities. In addition, covered employers are required to inform workers of the importance of following certain good hygiene practices to minimize exposure to hazards in the field of heat, communicable diseases, retention of urine and agrichemical residues.
Information on federal laws concerning migrant and seasonal agricultural workers, as well as other labor laws, is available by calling the Wage and Hour Division’s toll-free helpline at 866-4US-WAGE (487-9243) or by visiting http://www.dol.gov/whd.
U.S. Department of Labor releases are accessible on the Internet at www.dol.gov. The information in this news release will be made available in alternate format (large print, Braille, audio tape or disc) from the COAST office upon request. Please specify which news release when placing your request at (202) 693-7828 or TTY (202) 693-7755. The Labor Department is committed to providing America’s employers and employees with easy access to understandable information on how to comply with its laws and regulations. For more information, please visit www.dol.gov/compliance.