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Extortion': Why Did the Labor Department 'Drop the Hammer' on Oregon Farmers?


"Pay a fine and back wages and sign a consent judgment admitting wrong and agreeing not to contest the order even if subsequent information exonerated the farms."

Oregon farmers and state officials are furious with the U.S. Labor Department after federal authorities in July put a hold on thousands of dollars worth of blueberries, citing "widespread" record-keeping and minimum wage violations, Eric Mortenson reports for The Oregonian.

“[T]he department invoked a "hot goods" provision of labor law that prohibited shipment of the berries. Labor officials also notified wholesalers that berries from the farms would be subject to the order and should not be processed or shipped," according to the report.

"Hot goods" orders are used by the department's Wage and Hour Division to halt the production and/or sale of goods its believes were produced in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

But here's what has members of Oregon's congressional delegation and the Oregon Farm Bureau particularly disturbed: The federal agency told the farmers that they could make everything go away if they paid "a fine and back wages and sign a consent judgment admitting wrong and agreeing not to contest the order even if subsequent information exonerated the farms."

It’s "extortion," said Greg Ditchen whose farm had to pay $169,816 in back wages and penalties. He had no other choice. It was either that or let his crops go to waste.

"They put a hot goods order on our fruit, and after they had the money they said we had to sign a paper saying we were wrong," Ditchen said. "We had to make a business decision and sign the paper."

And he wasn’t the only farmer to take a hit.

“A second farm, E&S Farms Inc. of Woodburn, paid $11,301 in back wages and a $10,500 penalty. Earlier this month, the Department of Labor said Pan-American Berry Growers of Salem signed a consent order to pay $41,778 in back wages and a $7,040 civil penalty,” Mortenson reports.

Since imposing the heavy-handed fees and giving the growers no other choice but to pay them, Oregon’s labor commissioner, agriculture director, and members of the state's congressional delegation have demanded the labor department explain itself.

Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian told the fed agency in a letter that they most likely violated the constitutional search and seizure and due process rights of farmers "who have yet to be found guilty of anything."

As for members of the Oregon's congressional delegation, they told the feds in a letter that the agency "may have abandoned normal due process mechanisms," adding that "hot goods" orders are reserved specifically for cases in which labor violations are "willful, egregious and/or repeated."

Senators Ron Wyden (D) and Jeff Merkley (D) signed the letter, as did representatives Kurt Schrader (D), Peter DeFazio (D), Greg Walden (R), and Suzanne Bonamici (D).

"This appears to be a very heavy handed approach," said Oregon Agriculture Department Director Katy Coba, adding that the fed agency is using the "hot goods" provision "as a first step in the compliance process instead of the last resort.”

A U.S. Labor spokesperson declined to comment on the details of the ordeal.

And what do you think this sort of heavy-handed enforcement will encourage the farm owners to do? Switch over to mechanical harvesters, of course.

"It's not the labor," said Ditchen, "it's the people who come out and tell us we're doing wrong."

 Click here to read the full report.

Follow Becket Adams (@BecketAdams) on Twitter

Front page photo courtesy the AP.

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