Department of Labor has recently ordered two farms to pay a collective $240,674 in back wages and civil money penalties for H-2A worker violations. A potato farm in Bancroft, ID, took the bigger hit for intimidating workers after refusing to pay the required wage rates, not providing a sufficient percentage of the hours guaranteed in their contract, and failing to pay workers for inbound transportation costs. Sixty-nine workers will receive $159,256 in back wages.
The second farm in Independence, VA, will pay $55,988 for its H-2A violations. Here, violations ranged from failing to provide housing and transportation to paying four cents an hour less than they originally offered.
Though these cases were decided this year, they stem from violations incurred years ago. The Virginia farm, for example, was issued a “Determination Letter” by the Department of Labor in August of 2020 for their management of the H-2A program in 2018 and 2019. This past January the case was resolved through settlement discussions. An initial assessment of close to $60,000 in civil money penalties was dropped to $36,000 in exchange for Reyes Nature Greens accepting a 3-year monitoring program at their expense. Back wages owed, totaling $19,988, were paid to the 20 affected workers before the settlement. The civil money penalty was due to be paid off in early May of this year.
Many, but not all, DOL investigations are initiated by employees themselves, who file confidential complaints with the agency to spark an investigation of employers violating labor laws. The Wage and Hour Division “targets low-wage industries… because of high rates of violations or egregious violations [and] the employment of vulnerable workers,” so the agricultural industry will continue to receive DOL scrutiny.
As participation in the H-2A program increases nationwide (15% increase between 2020 and 2021) and wage rates for H-2A workers jump upwards, farmers taking advantage of this program need to be aware of the potential consequences of non-compliance with its numerous complex regulations.
Furthermore, changes to the program are on the horizon, as many advocacy groups are calling for reform. DOL has already proposed a new way to calculate the wage rates of H-2A workers. There is growing awareness of how the H-2A program can be abused and allow for human labor trafficking; pressure around these issues will certainly continue to lead to reforms to the program to protect vulnerable workers.
Sources and Further Reading
For a summary of the Virginia H-2A case, read the Consent Findings submitted in January of 2022.
The Bancroft, ID case is described here in a Department of Labor press release.