SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Some blueberry growers in Walla Walla County have admitted in federal court that they systematically violated the rights of their agricultural workers over a period of three years.
That includes failing to pay the minimum wage and overtime in the 2011, 2012 and 2013 growing seasons.
The U.S. Department of Labor filed suit more than two years ago, and the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington this week entered a consent judgment in favor of the government on all counts.
Thursday’s ruling requires the Walla Walla County growers to pay a total of $385,318 in unpaid wages and damages to pickers and packing shed workers.
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The growers, who include Blue Mountain Farms and its affiliates, must also pay $20,000 in civil penalties to the federal government.
“We are pleased that Blue Mountain finally admitted their systemic violations of federal law and have agreed to ensure that their hard-working harvest workers are no longer exploited by working them off the books, in the shadows,” said Ruben Rosalez, regional administrator for the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division.
Officials for Blue Mountain, headquartered in Burbank, Washington, did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment.
Labor Department investigators in 2013 discovered the growers were paying hundreds of workers off the books in Walla Walla County fields. Workers had no tickets to track how much they had picked, and they received no paychecks, the agency said.
Many workers who did appear on the company’s records were denied overtime pay despite working long and regular overtime hours, the agency said.
Growers first tried to deny access to their fields when agency officials started their investigation.
The department obtained a court order to force Blue Mountain to give investigators immediate access and to cease interfering with the investigation.
In the consent judgment, the growers admitted that they violated federal law. Specifically, the growers admit that:
—They used a system in which multiple workers were picking berries on a single ticket, making it appear that the berries “counted as having been harvested by one person.”
—The employer did not pay the promised wage, which was the Washington state minimum wage, to some of their workforce.
—Growers did not pay their workers in the packing shed the legally required overtime premium of time-and-a-half despite the long hours worked.