Department of Labor diligent in protecting legal migrants? rights

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

With all the rhetoric about illegal immigration, it is sometimes hard to remember that many of the seasonal migrant workers on labor-intensive West Michigan farms are in the United States legally.
And that, therefore, the law protects them.

According to James Smith, District Director of the U.S. Department of Labor Wage Hour Division in Detroit, “Vulnerable farmworkers are and will always be a  very high priority area for the Labor Department.”
Last week the Department of Labor (DOL) charged fines and required back compensation for workers under migrant housing, child labor law and wage and overtime violations to blueberry growers in Allegan, Ottawa, and Van Buren counties.

While State of Michigan wage investigations are, by statute, complaint-based, the DOL is proactive in its ongoing investigation. (The State of Michigan does independently conduct housing inspections in migrant camps.)

One farm in South Haven, Cornerstone Ag Enterprises, will have to pay about $30,000 in penalties. The infractions are listed as: failure to disclose conditions to workers; failure to make/keep employer records; failure to pay wages when due; and failure to ensure housing safety and health. The child labor violations involved the employment of four children aged 14-17 in operations where the farm was packing blueberries for other West Michigan producers.

Though these penalties may seem minor, they are steep enough to have a deterrent effect on smaller farms. According to its receptionist, Cornerstone is “just a plain old farm,” and is locally-owned.
In addition the farm will have to pay over $3500 in back wages.

 “Some of the migrant housing conditions we found during our investigations were deplorable,” said Smith. “Among the violations were dilapidated building structures, overcrowding, lack of hot water for bathing and rooms infested by insects. These conditions certainly violated the law, as well as common decency.”

Nine farm labor contractors and 17 blueberry growers were fined in the 2010 investigation. The total civil money penalties assessed is $78,040, and the growers must pay $27,874 in back wages.

In 2009, eight farms in Berrien, Cass, Kent, Newaygo, Ottawa, Oceana, Muskegon and Van Buren counties paid over $36,000 in penalties, citing such infractions as the employment of a six-year-old child.

Then in June 2010, Berrybrook Enterprises was hit with a fine of $7,250, for bad housing conditions in its Van Buren and Cass county camps.

The DOL conducts such investigations under the Fair Labor Standards Act, including its child labor provisions, and the Migrant and Seasonal Worker Protection Act, and is the decision-making authority on penalties and back-pay amounts.

As Smith pointed out, farms are free to appeal the assessments before an Administrative Law Judge, or seek other remedies.

He did say that most of the farms have already paid their fines, but there are a few going through the appeal process.

In addition, farm labor contractors who obtain legal migrant workers for farms met with penalties for such violations as failing to register, knowingly making false representations on applications, and failing to ensure that a driver has a valid license. The DOL has fined a farm labor contractor associated with A & L farms in Grand Haven $7,450 so far.

Many of the 17 growers also did not pay workers the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, which has been remedied for the 271 workers found in the investigation. Migrant workers were also shorted based on what they were promised when they took the jobs, but have been paid over $8700 to remedy that, and based on not receiving overtime pay, for which farms will pay $10,110 to 33 workers.

Smith says that not all of the cases have settled yet, so there may be more fines on the way.

For more information about the DOL and its authorities, including child labor rules and the MSPA, call 866-4US-WAGE (487-9243).  Information is also available online at http://www.dol.gov/whd.