The U.S. Department of Labor found that Santa Maria labor contractor Rancho Nuevo Harvesting Inc. violated H-2A agricultural worker program regulations and ordered the company to pay more than $1 million in back wages and penalties.
The H-2A agricultural worker program allows agricultural employers who anticipate a shortage of workers to bring nonimmigrant, foreign workers to the U.S. to perform temporary or seasonal labor. Within the program, employers are required to provide adequate food, housing, transportation, and pay for the time the workers are requested, according to the Department of Labor website.
“Temporary agricultural workers are often among the most vulnerable and abused in the nation’s workforce,” Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division Regional Administrator Ruben Rosalez in the San Francisco office said in a statement. “The outcome in this case should be a reminder to other farm labor contractors and growers of the costly consequences of violating federal regulations and that lying during an H-2A certification process can be grounds for debarment.”
Investigators found that Rancho Nuevo didn’t provide meals on Sundays and didn’t provide transportation to and from housing sites, supplied spoiled food for the farmworkers’ meals, housed them in unsafe quarters, and illegally sought meal and voluntary quit waivers, said Francisco Ocampo, the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division’s Assistant Director in Los Angeles.
“They were saying the workers were the ones choosing not to eat the meals. Talking to the workers, that was not the case. They were told when they arrived that meals wouldn’t be provided on Sundays,” Ocampo said about the waivers. “Part of the investigation’s findings found that the workers on average spent $40 to $50 to purchase their own breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
Voluntary quit waivers meant that the employer could send H-2A workers back to their home country early rather than pay the workers for their full contracts, he added.
“The company must still honor that and part of the settlements are the wages the company has to pay back,” Ocampo said.
Rancho Nuevo will pay $558,298 in unpaid wages to 649 farmworkers and an additional $475,211 in penalties for repeated violations.
“We are going to be collecting the wages and working with Mexican consultants to have the monies paid out to the workers to make sure they receive their due wages,” Ocampo said.
The company is not barred from participating in the H-2A program—which can often happen in these cases—but is required to hire a full-time monitor with at least five years of H-2A experience, Ocampo said. If violations happen again, there is potential for Rancho Nuevo to be barred, he added.
“The monitoring company will do what we’re doing, but it’s a private company that reviews payroll records, interviews employees, looks at transit to make sure it’s complying with the consent judgment,” he said.
Rancho Nuevo officials told the Sun in an email that the company fully cooperated with the Department of Labor on its investigation and the department never sought debarment from the H-2A program.
“We are moving forward with enhanced compliance to ensure we are fully following the law and providing the healthiest, safest work environment for our employees,” officials said in a statement.
Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) Associate Organizing Director Zulema Aleman said that it’s hard for workers to know their rights because they are often isolated from the community, and employers oversee their whole life while working in the U.S.
“There’s no way to reach them even when we’re out in the community. They completely avoid us and tell us that they are not allowed to speak to us. Even domestic workers tell us what’s going on but they ask us not to use their names because they don’t want to be blacklisted,” Aleman said.
CAUSE continues working with local agencies like Public Health and Environmental Health Services to ensure that they are monitoring H-2A workers’ food quality and local California Employment Development Department offices so they can conduct investigations.
“We’re going to continue canvassing in the community. We just got a grant with the State Labor Enforcement Agency that funds community worker outreach programs across the state,” Aleman said.
Since Rancho Nuevo is not barred from participating in the H-2A program, Aleman said that she hopes serious actions will be taken—other than fines—if violations occur again to demonstrate that workers are protected.
“We should be providing actions that are more measurable to ensure that it sends a message,” she said. “It’s a huge responsibility to be in charge of an employee’s whole life: food, transportation, housing, and their job. I would like to see companies take this more seriously.”