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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Labor Department debars N.C. contractor for farmworker abuse

The U.S. Department of Labor has debarred a farm labor contractor based in Pender County for three years from employing temporary non-immigrant agricultural workers after finding he failed to pay some workers and charged illegal fees to others.

The Labor Department also assessed Valentino Lopez $62,531 in civil penalties after investigators found widespread violations of the federal H-2A program that allow workers to enter the U.S. legally to help farmers with seasonal labor demands.

The department’s Wage and Hour Division learned Lopez confiscated workers’ passports immediately after they arrived, failed to pay weeks of wages to more than a dozen workers, did not pay the inbound and outbound transportation expenses for workers, and charged workers between $150 and $8,000 in fees to participate in the federal program.

Lopez recruited, hired, housed and transported H-2A program workers to pick blueberries at Ronnie Carter Farms in Sampson County. The program helps provide agricultural employers with foreign workers to perform temporary or seasonal work including planting, cultivating or harvesting labor. 

Specifically, division investigators found that – in addition to the intimidating practice of collecting and retaining passports workers needed to leave the farm – Lopez violated federal regulations by doing the following: 

  • Failing to pay inbound transportation expenses to 75 workers during the 2020 and 2021 harvest and outbound transportation expenses to 47 workers in the 2020 season;
  • Not paying 13 workers for their last few weeks of employment in the 2020 season;
  • Charging 21 H-2A workers fees ranging from $150 to $8,000 to participate in the program, despite provisions prohibiting employers from passing along operating costs to employees; and
  • Attempting to conceal intimidation and threats by returning all passports and visas to workers immediately before investigators arrived. 

The investigation also led to the recovery of $58,039 in wages owed to 72 workers, according to the Department of Labor. 

“Workers in the H-2A program come to the U.S. legally to help agricultural employers meet seasonal demands and earn good wages to help support their families at home,” said Wage and Hour Division District Director Richard Blaylock, who is based in Raleigh, in a statement. “Valentino Lopez chose to exploit and intimidate dozens of workers and charge fees illegally, and now has been held accountable.”

The division’s investigation spanned Lopez’s H-2A job order for the 2020 and 2021 growing seasons in North Carolina. Neither Lopez nor representatives from Ronnie Carter Farms could immediately be reached for comment.

In fiscal year 2022, the Wage and Hour Division recovered more than $5.8 million in back wages for 8,260 workers employed in the agricultural industry. After 879 investigations, the division assessed employers more than $7.9 million in civil money penalties for violations of federal laws.

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