Editorial: Use power with discretion in protecting blueberry pickers


Published Mar 22, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

Some of the high-ranking people in the U.S. Department of Labor came to Portland on Monday. They came to explain their enforcement of the law, which is good, because they had some explaining to do.

They told a good story.

Agricultural workers are among the most vulnerable employees, they explained. When an employer doesn’t pay those workers what they are owed, it’s theft. And that thieving employer also gets an unfair advantage over other employers who obey the law.

The department officials described how they took quick action last summer against three Oregon blueberry farmers. The department says it had evidence they were breaking the law. It got the farmers to voluntarily agree to not ship their goods. One farm had one child labor violation. The department collected $240,000 in back wages, damages and penalties. The blueberries could then be shipped.

“In total, more than 1,100 workers were found to be impacted by the growers’ improper wage practices,” the department wrote in a letter to members of Congress.

But here is another good story.

The blueberry farmers didn’t believe there was anything voluntary about holding shipment of their berries, admitting guilt or paying the money requested. They also had to waive any right of future appeal.

The farmers were worried if they delayed and went to court their berries would spoil and they would lose customers.

That’s not all. At the meeting on Monday, we asked the department how much of the money collected in back wages had been distributed to the 1,110 employees. The department declined to give out a number. The department may post the information — in three years — after it has stopped looking for employees.

We asked how many of the 1,100 workers have truly been “found,” as the department told Congress. Michael Hancock, assistant administrator for policy with the department, was vague again. He said the number was “a moving target” and “substantial.” After the meeting, we asked him again and he said it was about 50.

That’s 50 real live workers out of 1,100 workers the department told Congress had been found. When a part of the U.S. government tells members of Congress it has found 1,100 victims, it should not exaggerate.

The department didn’t explain why the farmers could not be given time to defend themselves and any alleged back wages held in escrow. The department also didn’t explain why it’s due process is to find farmers quickly guilty based on estimates of how many blueberries can be picked and not actual victims.

The department plays a vital role in protecting workers and employers. It earned itself a public relations bonanza when it investigated blueberry farms in 2009 in Michigan, North Carolina and New Jersey.

But the Oregon investigation would only truly have been a good story if the department had used its most powerful enforcement tools with discretion and did not overstate what it achieved.