3-year debarment from temporary worker program also requested
SAN FRANCISCO – The U.S. Department of Labor is seeking to obtain a judgment against strawberry grower Fernandez Farms Inc., based in Watsonville, Calif., and its president, Gonzalo Fernandez, requiring payment of nearly $1 million in back wages to approximately 400 farm workers for minimum wage and overtime violations. Additionally, the department seeks more than $1 million in penalties for those wage violations and for egregious violations of the H-2A temporary non-immigrant worker program, which include a failure to hire qualified U.S. workers and allegedly requiring workers to pay a substantial sum of their earnings to cover costs of the program.
“This employer blatantly disregarded the law – underpaying low-wage workers, demanding kickbacks and circumventing rules on proper hiring,” said Laura Fortman, deputy administrator of the Wage and Hour Division. “Because of the nature of these violations, the department has no choice but to seek a debarment order that prohibits Fernandez Farms Inc. and its president, Gonzalo Fernandez, from applying to the H2-A program for three years, the maximum allowed.”
Investigators from the Wage and Hour Division’s San Francisco district office found that from May 2010 to December 2011, Fernandez Farms failed to pay workers the proper hourly wage and keep complete and accurate personnel and payroll records. The employer also required each temporary worker to kickback more than $1,600 from their earnings per season, allegedly to cover administrative costs of the program, in direct violation of H-2A program rules. The grower was also found in violation of federal housing safety and health requirements under the H-2A program. Additionally, the employer is alleged to have impeded the department’s investigation by intimidating workers and coercing them to hide from or lie to investigators, resulting in an extended investigation.
The H-2A temporary agricultural worker program establishes a means for employers who anticipate a shortage of domestic workers to bring non-immigrant foreign workers to the United States to perform temporary or seasonal agricultural work. The employer must file an application stating that a sufficient number of domestic workers are not available and the employment of these workers will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed workers in the United States. Employers using the H-2A program must meet a number of specific conditions relating to recruitment, wages, housing, meals and transportation. More information about H-2A requirements is available at http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs26a.htm.
The case is being litigated by the department’s Regional Office of the Solicitor in San Francisco. For more information about the H-2A program, the Fair Labor Standards Act and other federal wage laws, call the Wage and Hour Division’s toll-free helpline at 866-4US-WAGE (487-9243). Information also is available at http://www.dol.gov/whd/.