Department of Labor Recovers Over $800,000 in Back Wages and Penalties From Central Florida Agricultural Industry

Friday, December 9, 2011

The U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division is conducting a multiyear enforcement initiative in Central Florida's agricultural industry to increase employer compliance and remind workers of their rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act's field sanitation standard, and the federal H-2A temporary nonimmigrant worker program. Within the last year, the division's Tampa District Office conducted more than 60 investigations under the initiative, recovering $156,205 in back wages for 689 agricultural workers, and assessing $685,506 in civil money penalties.

The Wage and Hour Division is particularly concerned about the severity of noncompliance found at operations involving hand-harvested crops. Investigations conducted during the harvests of last year's citrus crops revealed that many workers were required to perform intense physical labor, such as hand-picking fruits and cleaning trees, for long periods of time without being compensated in accordance with federal law.

Common violations found included paying workers "piece rate" wages below the federal hourly minimum wage; failing to pay for all hours worked; failing to disclose employment terms and conditions, and inform workers of their rights; failing to maintain legally required employment and payroll records; and failing to meet federal health and safety standards for employer-furnished transportation and housing facilities, as required under the MSPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Among the major violators is Lake Placid-based citrus harvesting and processing company New Harvest Inc., a division of Lykes Brothers in Tampa, as well as the company's farm labor contractors: Barajas & Torres Harvesting, M.B. Harvesting, Elia Chavez, Silverio Martinez, Francisco Orozco, Ignacio Munguia, Rigoberto Barajas, Guadalupe Morado, Esteban Garcia and Simeon Marquez.

"We have found widespread noncompliance in the agricultural industry that causes many vulnerable workers, including migrant and seasonal laborers, to suffer substandard wages, unsafe housing and transportation, and harsh working conditions," said James Schmidt, director of the Wage and Hour Division's Tampa office, which is coordinating the initiative. "The Wage and Hour Division will continue its enforcement efforts in this industry and focus on ensuring compliance among agricultural employers, farm labor contractors and housing providers associated with the upcoming citrus, strawberry and watermelon harvests. The goal of this ongoing initiative is to remedy systemic labor violations and ensure a level playing field for the many law-abiding employers who play by the rules and pay fair wages."

Teams of investigators will continue to visit fields and packing houses throughout Central Florida to assess compliance among facility owners, growers, farm labor contractors and other business entities providing services to these agricultural operations. Thorough inspections of migrant housing units, transportation vehicles, employment practices and pay records are being conducted to ensure compliance with all applicable child and agricultural labor standards. When violations are found, the division will pursue corrective action - including litigation, civil money penalties and "hot goods" embargoes - to recover workers' wages and ensure accountability under the law.

In addition, the division is conducting outreach to inform agricultural workers of their rights under federal labor laws. It also is collaborating with community groups, state agencies, employer and industry organizations, and local officials to provide industrywide compliance assistance with all applicable agricultural labor standards, child labor restrictions, H-2A regulatory requirements and joint-employer responsibilities.

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