Saturday, December 2, 2023

Labor department fines two NC businesses for underpaying farm workers

The U.S. Department of Labor fined two North Carolina employers $139,039 after it found they underpaid non-immigrant farmworkers and intimidated them by seizing their passports.

The workers were employed through the federal H-2A program, which enables agricultural employers to hire temporary non-immigrant workers to meet business demands while not adversely affecting wages and working conditions of similarly employed people working in the U.S.

Investigators with the department’s Wage and Hour Division found that McClenny Farms of Mount Olive received a contract to recruit, hire, house and transport H-2A workers to harvest cucumbers, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco and watermelons in Wayne County, North Carolina.

During its investigations, the agency discovered Francisco Valadez Jr. of Smithfield — debarred for two years by the department in 2020 for violating H-2A regulations — was operating the contract on McClenny Farms’ behalf.

The division determined that McClenny Farms and Valadez were acting as joint employers, sharing responsibility for the violations and the assessed penalties.

“Our investigations found these employers violated their legal obligations and preyed on people who traveled to the U.S. for better-paying work simply to support themselves and their families back home,” said Wage and Hour Division District Director Richard Blaylock in Raleigh, in a statement.

Among other issues, division investigators found the employers violated regulations by failing to have accurate records, including earnings, hours statements and reasons for pay deductions.

They also used unlawful cost-shifting by having a bus driver who demanded workers pay $150 each before getting on the bus. They also paid $8 per hour in cash instead of $13.15 per hour, as stated in the work contract.

They also denied the workers any pay for the first week of their employment, leaving them a week behind the wages promised in the contract.

“These employers’ actions are shocking,” Blaylock added. “In addition to committing wage theft, McClenny Farms and Valadez frightened workers and took personal documents to prevent them from leaving farms, acts of intimidation that we will punish as the law allows.”

In addition to assessing civil money penalties, the division recovered $97,100 in back wages for the workers and debarred Valadez Jr. as an individual from participation in the H-2A program for two years.

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