A California farm labor contractor has been fined for rejecting a local worker in favor of a foreign agricultural guest, among other abuses, the U.S. Labor Department announced.
Empire Farm Labor Contractor, based in Salinas, Calif., also held onto foreign workers’ documents and failed to compensate them for transportation time, according to the Labor Department. The company paid out $38,260 in back wages to 79 employees and was fined $18,413 over the abuses, which occurred during the first five months of this year in the Imperial Valley.
The announcement was the second in as many weeks involving the agricultural guest worker program in California. In the previous investigations, the Labor Department recovered nearly half a million dollars in lost wages from 10 contractors and growers, mostly in Central Coast berry fields.
California’s nearly $50-billion agriculture industry is recruiting record numbers of seasonal farmworkers from Mexico and other countries as it confronts a years-long labor shortage exacerbated by the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigration.
Recruitment of seasonal foreign workers under the H-2A visa program reached a record 20,905 so far this year — with hiring still underway for the winter desert season, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of federal labor data. That’s more than double the number of workers recruited just four years ago and an 11-fold increase across eight years.
Labor activists say that surge in recruitment has spurred an increase in abuses, including wage violations and depriving the workers of their freedom of movement by seizing their documents.
Growers complain they are being targeted over regulations they find ambiguous and difficult to follow, including how to account for travel time during the workday, which has been at the center of recent enforcement and lawsuits. The latter rule applies to all workers, not just seasonal foreign recruits.
Officials from Empire Farm Labor Contractor were not immediately available for comment.
Foreign agricultural laborers must be provided transport from the U.S.-Mexico border to the area where they will work and are entitled to employer-paid local lodging for the season as well as daily meals (or access to cooking facilities). Companies employing foreign guest workers also must show they have made efforts to find and hire local applicants. They must hire any U.S.-based applicant who shows up during the first half of the contract period for H-2A workers.