PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Two Oregon blueberry farms say a government agency gave them a choice last summer: pay back wages and fines in an investigation of compensation for berry pickers, or let the harvest rot.
They filed suit Thursday in U.S. District Court challenging the use of a "hot goods" provision of labor law.
U.S. Department of Labor investigators invoked the provision in 2012, prohibiting shipment of the berries and notifying wholesalers that berries from the farms should not be processed, The Oregonian reported (http://bit.ly/16gVLTC ).
The Labor Department "held the proverbial gun" to the farms' heads, the lawsuit says, denying the farmers due process and giving them no choice but to pay back wages and fines, admit wrongdoing and agree not to contest the orders even if they were later exonerated.
The lawsuit asks the court to rescind the orders and reimburse the farms — $50,000 to Pan-American Berry Growers of Salem and nearly $170,000 to B&G Ditchen of Silverton.
A Labor Department spokeswoman, Sonia Melendez, issued a statement Friday saying the department is reviewing the suit. She added, "In general, Congress gave the department 'hot goods' authority as a way to help ensure compliance and level the playing field for responsible employers."
The case began in July 2012 when investigators visited Willamette Valley berry farms and said they found widespread record-keeping and minimum wage violations.
Most pickers work on a piece rate basis because they can earn more than if they work for an hourly wage, but farmers must track hours and picking totals to ensure workers earn at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
Labor investigators compared picking totals and the number of workers in the field, and they concluded the farms must have employed many more pickers than were accounted for.
They fined the farms for back wages due those workers. The farmers said the government was basing its case on "ghost workers" who were not identified and might not exist, meaning wages might never be distributed.
Oregon's congressional delegation and other officials called the federal agency "heavy handed" for using a law originally intended to halt labor abuses in the garment industry.
Information from: The Oregonian, http://www.oregonlive.com