A recent lawsuit targeting the U.S. Department of Labor claims the government agency wrongfully coerced two Oregon blueberry producers into signing unfair wage settlements, also failing to grant them their right to due process. The farms said they were effectively forced to agree to the settlement to prevent their berries from spoiling before they could be sold due to a Labor Department order prohibiting their goods from being shipped.
The lawsuit accuses Labor Department officials of enforcing a "hot goods" provision that made it impossible for the plaintiffs to do business until they agreed to a settlement requiring them to pay fines of $220,000 and alleged back wages. The plaintiffs claim officials even ordered them not to contest the "hot goods" order in the event they were found not to have withheld wages. Asserting that this action effectively constituted extortion, the plaintiffs seek reimbursement for the fines and demand that the Labor Department reverse the orders against them.
Officials invoked the "hot goods" order in 2012 after visiting the farms and allegedly discovering large-scale failures to pay workers minimum wage and keep proper records. Cases such as this are frequently complicated, as most employees opt to be paid based on how many berries they pick, rather than the number of hours they work. Workers generally earn more this way, though farms are required to track them to ensure they make at least $7.25 per hour, the federally-mandated minimum wage.
A representative with the U.S. Department of Labor said she could not comment on pending legal cases but noted that officials have not yet read the lawsuit. Department officials have historically defended its practices of freezing shipments in order to ensure farm employees are paid fair wages, which they claim also helps avoid unfair advantages among agricultural employers.
Wage issues are common in northwestern Oregon and other agricultural areas, frequently leading to complex lawsuits that can be trying for litigants without appropriate legal representation. Individuals or businesses involved in such disputes should contact a qualified attorney with experience in civil litigation.
Oregon Live, "Oregon berry farms allege U.S. Labor Department coerced them into wage settlements" Eric Mortenson, Aug. 15, 2013