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Democrats Pound Labor Department Over Farm Enforcement

July 31, 2014

From CQ.com (Congressional Quarterly) July 30, 2014

Democrats Pound Labor Department Over Farm Enforcement

 

By Philip Brasher, CQ Roll Call

 

House Democrats joined Republicans in accusing the Department of Labor on Wednesday of abusing its authority in trying to stop violations of wage-and-hour regulations by growers of fresh produce.

 

The department has been acting in “complete disregard” of farmers’ constitutional due-process rights by forcing them into settlements under threat of seizing their crops, Rep. Kurt Schrader , D-Ore., told an agency official at a hearing.  Suzan DelBene , D-Wash., said she was “very concerned we could see these actions repeated against farmers in my district who play by the rules.”

 

At issue is a Depression-era law that allows the department to stop the sale of goods when it suspects they were produced under illegal labor conditions. The department settled with three Oregon blueberry growers in 2012, but two of them decided to go to court and got a federal judge to agree that the agency had “unfairly stacked the deck” against the growers  when it threatened crop seizures to get them to agree to the deal.

 

David Weil, administrator of the department’s Wage and Hours Division, told the House Agriculture subcommittee that the “hot goods” authority had been used only sparingly against farmers — 28 times in 7,500 cases since 2001. “This statute does not exclude any sector based on perishability” of the products, Weil said. (Products are considered “hot goods” when produced under illegal working conditions.)

 

But lawmakers told Weil it is unfair for the department to use the authority against producers of highly perishable commodities such as berries, because farmers have little choice but to settle with the department or risk losing their crop.

 

Ann McLane Kuster , D-N.H., called the department’s enforcement actions “heavy handed” and said the agency needs to “make a greater effort” to work with farmers. The subcommittee chairman, Austin Scott , R-Ga., said the department was using “fear and intimidation” to “extort concessions from producers with little if any proof of wrong doing.” The department has threatened hot-goods actions against producers in Georgia several times, he said.

 

A Democrat who runs Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries, Brad Avakian, told the panel that the “hot goods” authority gave Labor “much too much leverage” with farmers. “It is just inherently the wrong method to use,” he said.

 

Rep. Ted Yoho , R-Fla., said the department appeared to be stepping up its investigations of farms that employ migrant labor. Weil essentially confirmed that, saying that the department’s enforcement priorities were “very data driven” and included some agricultural sectors. “The trend you’re describing is part of a larger emphasis on focusing our limited resources … on the industries where we find violations are the highest,” he said.

 

In an April letter to the department, the advocacy group Farmworker Justice said the hot-goods authority should be used more often to reduce “widespread legality, and to protect both farmworkers and law-abiding employers from those employers that seek an unfair advantage by violating the law.”

 

Source: CQ News

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