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Flap Arises Over U.S. Award to Oceanside Farm

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In grand fashion, the U.S. Department of Labor bestowed its first regional Agricultural Employer of the Year award Friday on Southern California’s largest tomato grower, Harry Singh & Sons, for improving the working and living conditions of farm workers.

But the award was immediately booed by some state labor investigators and workers’ advocacy groups. The reason: The state says the Oceanside farm owes about $1 million in unpaid overtime wages to hundreds of workers.

Only hours after Singh & Sons received the plaque Friday, a state labor inspector tried to serve the Singh family with a lawsuit that had been filed last spring.

“I wish it were funny, but it isn’t,” said Claudia Smith, regional counsel of the California Rural Legal Assistance, which first brought the complaint about the alleged overtime violations to the state in late 1993.

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Smith said some of Singh’s workers had put in as many as 82.5 hours a week but were paid a flat $4.25 an hour, the minimum wage.

“It’s pretty amazing the Department of Labor would go to the Farm Bureau but would not bother with checking with organizations that represent workers,” Smith said. The Farm Bureau of San Diego County worked with the Labor Department in publicizing the award.

Harry Singh Jr., son of the farm’s founder and owner, and other company managers couldn’t be reached Friday. But Barbara Metz, a consultant who is a spokeswoman for the Singh farms, said she was stunned by the state’s overtime allegations.

“This is just shocking to me,” she said. “We’re not aware of that. I can’t imagine this happening.”

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Neither could federal labor officials, who appeared miffed by the situation. They said Friday that it wasn’t until two days ago that they learned from state officials of their pending overtime claims against Singh.

By then, the press releases had already gone out. So had the invitations to a number of senior federal officials and congressional representatives from Washington, who were among about 60 people attending the award ceremony.

Don Wiley, assistant district director of the Department of Labor’s wage and hour division in San Diego, said Singh & Sons was selected mainly because of its efforts in providing much-needed housing for employees.

In late 1990, the farm completed a privately financed $2.5-million housing project that features dormitory-type accommodations for about 325 field hands. Many viewed it as one of the largest and most modern farm-worker housing complexes in California, a state where thousands of homeless immigrant laborers camp in the brush or live in run-down shelters. When the complex opened, workers paid $16.50 a week for bunk beds in a communal sleeping room, and $44.80 a week for three hot meals a day.

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“We’ve been looking to identify people who are model businesses and show how they have tried to help the working conditions of people,” Wiley said. He added that before making its award nomination, the Labor Department verified that Singh & Sons had not violated federal labor laws.

Although farm workers, such as tomato pickers, are exempt from federal overtime rules, they are covered under separate California laws. In California, employers are required to give farm workers time-and-half pay for more than 60 hours of work in a week.

Jose Millan, assistant state labor commissioner, said that the inspection of Singh & Sons was conducted by federal and state officials under the joint garment and agricultural task force, which has been roiled by increasing friction between the two partners. Federal labor officials, however, said they were unaware of taking part in the Singh investigation.

State labor officials said the overtime allegations are based on a lengthy audit that covered the early 1990s. Singh & Sons farms about 700 acres and employs 400 to 900 workers, depending on the season.

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Millan said he was shocked that his federal counterparts would go ahead with the award despite the state’s overtime suit. “How can you praise someone for one right and be silent on a wrong?” Millan asked. “And $1 million in overtime wages is terribly wrong.”

Millan said his investigators have tried repeatedly to serve the suit to Singh but have been denied entry into the gated offices at the farmland.

Smith, the attorney for the California Rural Legal Assistance, said she found that hard to believe. “That’s preposterous,” she said, adding that she has been pressing state labor officials for action for more than a year.


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