Generally, one of the major functions of the United States Department of Labor is to ensure that employers act fairly toward their employees – paying them fair wages, not overworking them, and protecting them from harassment, among other things. According to the Oregon Farm Bureau, however, the Labor Department has overstepped its authority in investigating blueberry farmers within the state.
According to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Oregon Farm Bureau has filed suit in federal court against the Department of Labor, seeking access to the department’s records regarding an investigation against blueberry farmers in Oregon. In the summer of 2012, the Labor Department began an investigation, finding serious minimum wage and record keeping violations at three of the seven blueberry farms it investigated in Oregon. In response to these findings, the Labor Department used what is known as the “hot goods” provision under the Fair Labor Standards Act to bring the allegedly unfair employers into compliance with proper labor standards.
What is a Hot Goods Order?
Under the “hot goods” provision of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), when an employer is found to have violated minimum wage or other provisions of the FLSA, an employer is not allowed to sell (in interstate commerce), ship, or offer to ship any goods produced in violation. If the employer fails to correct his or her violations voluntarily, the Wage and Hour Division of the Labor Department can actually seek to stop the physical shipment of the goods. Given that this is quite an extreme step, with possibly severe economic repercussions for the business targeted, the Labor Department does not make a hot goods designation very often.
In the present case regarding the blueberry farmers in Oregon, the Oregon Farm Bureau claims that the Labor Department said that it would lift the hot goods order if the farmers acknowledged their wrongdoing in a signed consent judgment, in addition to paying fines and back wages. The three farms settled their claims and were finally allowed to ship their crops after they paid the Labor Department $240,000.
Oregon Farm Bureau Wants Labor Department Records Regarding the Hot Goods Order
The bureau is claiming that the designation was unfair, particularly given the perishable nature of a blueberry crop. Oregon’s state Labor Commissioner has asked that the Labor Department refrain from placing a hot goods designation on perishable goods, and one of the farmers, Gregg Ditchen of Silverton, called the Labor Department’s action as “extortion.” Furthermore, the OFB is questioning how the federal government decided that a hot goods designation was appropriate, particularly given that two of the three farmers (who are OFB members) had no previous violations on record.
The OFB claims that it has been working with Oregon’s congressmen and women on this controversy, even going so far as to file a request for the Labor Department’s records under the federal Freedom of Information Act. When the department did not provide those records within the mandated 20 working-day response period, the Bureau decided to file a civil suit claiming that the federal government did not provide the blueberry farmers with due process.
It is important that the Labor Department, while defending the rights of employees, not strip employers of their own rights. It will be interesting to see whether courts find that the federal government was within its rights to impose a hot goods order on blueberry farmers who were violating their employees’ minimum wage rights, or whether it will find that the Labor Department’s action was extreme and unjustified. In either case, if you believe that your employer has violated your rights – or that you have been unfairly targeted in a labor investigation – please contact one of our experienced attorneys to help you defend your rights.