Editorial: Labor Department needs to answer questions

Published Mar 16, 2013 at 05:00AM

Dear Seth Harris (acting U.S. Secretary of Labor): We know you are acting Secretary of Labor and a new boss may be appointed soon, but there’s something you should know.

We have reason to believe your staff supplied inaccurate information to Congress.

We have reason to believe that the investigations the Labor Department conducted into three Oregon blueberry farms were flawed.

And we have to wonder why it’s been a month since we sent your department questions and the department has not supplied answers.

We were told on Feb. 14: “I’ll need to get an answer for you on this in the morning.”

We got nothing.

We got an email last week saying, “Either one of my colleagues in Washington or I will hope to talk with you Friday.”

We got nothing.

When we asked again this week, Deanne Amaden, who works in your San Francisco office, told us that she hoped to have an answer to some of our questions soon.

We asked her who could answer all of our questions. “I don’t know,” she said.

We asked her who could find out who would know. “I don’t know,” she said.

We hate to pick on her, because she has been polite and professional, but doesn’t the public get to know what the department is doing? Or does the department not know what it’s doing?

We want to know more about the investigations of those blueberry farms.

You may be aware of the highlights. Your department notified the three blueberry farms of alleged minimum wage violations. One farm had an alleged child labor violation.

Then the department did something unusual in Oregon in dealing with perishable goods. It invoked a “hot goods” provision of labor law that embargoed shipment of the berries.

The farmers couldn’t ship until they “voluntarily agreed” — as your department’s press release put it — to pay a total of $240,000 in wages, damages and penalties. They also had to sign documents saying that they were guilty without any trial and without any right of appeal.

It was either sign or let the blueberries go bad. That’s voluntary?

After your department took these actions, Oregon officials and the congressional delegation raised questions. A quote in the letter of reply by Mary Beth Maxwell, acting deputy administrator in your department, sent to members of Congress caught our attention.

“In total, more than 1,100 workers were found to be impacted by the growers’ improper wage practices,” it said.

Were those workers ever found?

We talked to Manny Lopez. He worked for the U.S. Department of Labor for about 30 years, leaving last year after serving as an investigator for the Wage and Hour Division. The day after your investigation at the B&G Ditchen Farms in Silverton, Lopez arrived. He was admittedly working with an attorney representing the farmer, but what he says raises serious questions.

He talked to workers at the farm. He looked into what your department had done.

The department decided that workers could pick 60 pounds of berries in a day, Lopez said. Any worker that had a ticket that showed he or she picked more, the department decided, must have someone else picking on the same ticket.

Lopez decided to test that. He got about 16 workers together and had them do a second pick on a section that had already been picked the day before. There are fewer easy berries to pick on a second pick and yet Lopez says many of them picked more than 100 pounds. He said one worker picked more than 190 pounds.

So unless the department has actually found these ghost workers, the department may have fined the farmer for violations that never occurred.

How many of the “1,100” workers has the department found?

How much of the “back wages” have been paid?

What becomes of the money if the workers aren’t found?

Did the department do a time study to see how many blueberries could be picked? If not, why not?

Farm workers do need protection. Some don’t speak English or move from location to location. They are vulnerable, and employers could seek to take advantage of them. But government must also move carefully when it invokes one of its most powerful enforcement tools on perishable goods.

Why isn’t the department answering our questions? Is it hiding something?

We hope we don’t have to write again.

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