Initiative to protect rights of farmworkers, educate employers
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division is conducting an enforcement initiative focusing on the agricultural industry in North Carolina, particularly among producers of hand-harvested crops, in which the division previously has found widespread labor violations. The goal of this initiative is to increase employer compliance and remind workers of their rights under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act and the federal H-2A temporary nonimmigrant worker programs.
Since 2008, the Wage and Hour Division’s Raleigh District Office has conducted more than 260 investigations of agricultural operations in its jurisdiction alone, recovering nearly $473,000 in back wages for 878 employees. Significant and persistent violations in this industry have resulted in low wages, unsafe housing and transportation, and harsh working conditions for vulnerable workers such as minors, seasonal employees, and migrant or temporary foreign farmworkers.
The division is particularly concerned about the severity of noncompliance among producers of hand-harvested crops, sweet potatoes being a major example. Typical violations found during agricultural investigations include failure to disclose to agricultural employees their rights under the law, maintain accurate records, pay wages when due to nonagricultural employees employed in supporting jobs, and ensure that employer-furnished migrant housing units meet MSPA standards as well as those of the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“The Labor Department maintains its commitment to ensuring that agricultural employers understand their responsibilities under federal labor laws, and low-wage, vulnerable agricultural workers understand their rights,” said Richard Blaylock, the Wage and Hour Division’s district director in Raleigh. “The goal is to protect workers who are often denied the pay legally guaranteed them and make sure they receive the protections provided by federal labor law, while also ensuring that law-abiding employers are not placed at a competitive disadvantage for playing by the rules and paying fair wages.”
Under this initiative, teams of Wage and Hour Division investigators are visiting fields and packing houses throughout North Carolina to assess compliance among facility owners, growers, farm labor contractors and all 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 Wage and Hour Division is conducting outreach to inform agricultural workers of their rights under federal labor laws, and is collaborating with community groups, state agencies, employer organizations and local officials to promote industrywide compliance with all applicable agricultural labor standards, child labor restrictions, H-2A regulatory requirements and joint employer responsibilities.
Most employees engaged in agriculture are covered by federal law because they produce goods for interstate commerce. All nonexempt agricultural employers, agricultural associations and farm labor contractors are subject to the MSPA, which protects migrant and seasonal agricultural workers by establishing employment standards related to wages, housing, transportation, disclosures and record keeping. A fact sheet on the MSPA is available at http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs49.pdf.
The MSPA also requires farm labor contractors to register with the Labor Department, which maintains a list of individuals and corporations whose authorization to operate as farm labor contractors has been revoked. To determine whether a potential contractor has been declared ineligible, visit http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/statutes/mspa_debar.htm.
The FLSA sets standards for the minimum wage, overtime payments and limitations on child labor. It prohibits the employment of most individuals under the age of 16 in hazardous occupations. It allows, with restrictions, the employment of farmworkers between the ages of 12 and 16. There are no restrictions on workers 16 and older employed in farm jobs. Youths of any age may work at any time and perform any job on a farm owned or operated by their parents. Otherwise, individuals under 12 may not be employed in farm activities.
Whenever goods are produced in violation of the FLSA’s minimum wage, overtime or child labor provisions, the Labor Department can invoke the “hot goods” provision to prevent those goods from being shipped as interstate commerce.
Information about the MSPA and the FLSA is available by contacting the Wage and Hour Division’s Raleigh District Office at 4407 Somerset Road, Suite 260, Raleigh, N.C. 27609, telephone 919-790-2742, or the district’s Charlotte Area Office at 3800 Arco Corporate Drive, Suite 460, Charlotte, N.C. 28273, telephone 704-749-3360.
Additionally, information about all of the federal labor laws enforced by the Wage and Hour Division is available in English and Spanish by calling the division’s toll-free helpline at 866-4US-WAGE (487-9243) or visiting its website at http://www.dol.gov/whd.