SAN FRANCISCO – Home to thousands of winemakers who produce 80% of the wine in the U.S., California vineyards also yield their share of unscrupulous employers who profit by taking advantage of migrant and seasonal farmworkers as the harvest season approaches.
To combat violations that deny workers their hard-earned wages or jeopardize their safety, the U.S. Department of Labor has stepped up its outreach and enforcement efforts in the Golden State.
Recent investigations of two farm labor contractors, Next Crop Inc. of Los Baños and Noble Vineyards Management Inc. of Ukiah, and grower Pebble Ridge Vineyards & Vine Estates LLC in Paicines by the department’s Wage and Hour Division collectively found employers failed to safely transport agricultural workers to and from the fields, violated numerous requirements of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act and the H-2A temporary agricultural program and allowed a 14-year-old child to work during school hours illegally.
The investigations led the division to assess more than $231,881 in civil money penalties and to recover $129,081 in back wages for 353 agricultural workers. Specifically, the investigations found the following:
- Next Crop Inc. employed an unlicensed, unauthorized and uninsured driver to transport workers. Investigators learned that while driving under the influence, he had been involved in an earlier accident in which a vehicle rollover injured several farmworkers. The division also found Next Crop illegally employed a 14-year-old to work during school hours, illegally charged workers for transportation costs, did not disclose conditions of employment to workers, and failed to keep employer records or provide wage statements and pay wages when due. The division recovered $36,764 in back wages for 105 employees and assessed the labor contractor $99,067 in penalties. Next Crop provides harvesting crews for grower Pebble Ridge Vineyards.
- Noble Vineyards Management Inc., which provides workers to Sonoma and Mendocino County growers, violated the H-2A temporary agricultural program regulations by failing to pay the contract rate of pay and failing to pay corresponding U.S. workers at least the same rate paid to H-2A workers. The division also found Noble failed to provide tools required to work and did not reimburse H-2A workers’ travel expenses as required. In addition, investigators learned the employer retaliated against H-2A employees who asked about their wages by sending them back to their home countries before the contract’s end. The division recovered $92,317 in back wages owed to 148 workers and assessed the contractor $66,530 in penalties.
- Pebble Ridge Vineyards & Vine Estates LLC violated federal law by using Next Crop’s unlicensed, unauthorized and uninsured driver to transport workers, including the driver involved in the DUI incident. The division assessed the vineyard, which produces and sells grapes used by California’s Kendall Jackson, J. Lohr and Robert Mondavi wineries, $66,282 in penalties.
“The U.S. Department of Labor is determined to protect the rights of people whose labor allows California’s agricultural industry to prosper and provide products consumed throughout the U.S. and around the world,” said Wage and Hour Division Assistant District Director Alberto Raymond in San Francisco. “From making sure workers are paid and treated as the law requires to make sure safe drivers transport them in safe vehicles, we are committed to holding employers accountable.”
In fiscal year 2022, the Wage and Hour Division recovered more than $5.8 million in back wages for 8,260 workers employed in the agricultural industry. After 879 investigations, the division assessed employers more than $7.9 million in civil money penalties for violations of federal regulations.
“As the harvest season approaches, the Wage and Hour Division is available to offer compliance assistance and answer questions from employers and workers to help them understand the federal laws that govern agricultural industry wage practices and operations,” Raymond added.
The division offers farmworker rights information, compliance assistance resources for employers and an agriculture compliance assistance toolkit to ensure compliance with the law.
Employees and employers can also contact the Wage and Hour Division at its toll-free number, 1-866-4-US-WAGE (487-9243). Workers can call the Wage and Hour Division confidentially with questions – regardless of where they are from – and the department can speak with callers in more than 200 languages. Learn more about the Wage and Hour Division, including a search tool to use if you think you may be owed back wages collected by the division. Workers and employers alike can help ensure hours worked and pay are accurate by downloading the department’s free Timesheet App – now available in Spanish – on Android and Apple devices.