ATLANTA – With a nearly $1 million annual increase in back wages recovered in the Southeast for agricultural industry workers in calendar year 2022, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division is continuing its multi-year initiative to educate industry employers about compliance, and workers about their legal protections under federal law.
In addition to the initiative’s compliance outreach and education components, the division will continue its enforcement efforts in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.
In 2022, investigators with the division’s Southeast Region identified violations in 85 percent of the approximately 220 completed investigations of agricultural employers. Their reviews found employers owed more than $2.6 million in back wages to nearly 2,900 workers and led the division to assess more than $1.7 million in civil money penalties. The division also debarred seven Southeast growers and farm labor contractors from participation in the H-2A agricultural guest worker program.
“Most agricultural industry workers spend long hours on their feet, exposed to all kinds of weather as they do the hard work needed to put food on our tables, yet they are some of the country’s lowest paid workers,” said Wage and Hour Division Regional Administrator Juan Coria in Atlanta. “When unscrupulous employers try to increase their profits at the expense of workers’ dignity, respect and – in some cases – freedom, the Wage and Hour Division will use every available tool to hold these employers accountable.”
As part of the initiative, the division and industry stakeholders will partner to instill greater industry awareness and provide tools to improve compliance. As the growing season approaches, the division will conduct vigorous investigations, inform workers and employers of their rights and responsibilities, and act to prevent violations of federal programs used by employers to find temporary, seasonal and migrant workers to meet labor demands. The division will host a virtual agriculture seminar for employers and workers on March 7 from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. EST. Participation is free but registration is required.
“The Wage and Hour Division is committed to preventing abuses of the rights of agricultural workers in the Southeast, and will work with and call upon communities, stakeholders, government and non-governmental agencies to join our efforts to protect some of our nation’s most vulnerable workers,” Coria added.
The Department of Labor encourages recruiters, labor contractors, growers, processors, distributors, wholesalers and retailers to enlist in our campaign to protect workers and combat the kind of human trafficking that led to a recent criminal prosecution in Florida.
On Dec. 29, 2022, a federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida sentenced Bladamir Moreno – a Bartow, Florida, farm labor contractor who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit forced labor and racketeering charges – to 118 months in prison and to pay more than $175,000 in restitution to his victims. The court also debarred Moreno from participating in the H-2A temporary agricultural workers visa program and assessed penalties totaling $203,350, after the department and multiple agencies found that he subjected migrant farmworkers to forced labor, obstructed a federal investigation, intimidated witnesses and housed workers in unsafe and unhealthy living conditions.
Federal law empowers the division to suspend, revoke or withhold renewal of farm labor certificates for contractors that commit violations under the Migrant Seasonal Protection Act. Employers are encouraged to review the ineligible farm labor contractor and H-2A debarment lists prior to contracting for labor. The division offers compliance assistance resources, including an agriculture compliance assistance toolkit, employers can access the information they need to comply with the law.
For information about MSPA, H-2A and other laws enforced by the division, contact the toll-free helpline at 866-4US-WAGE (487-9243).