RALEIGH, N.C. — The U.S. Department of Labor has debarred a North Carolina farm labor contractor from employing temporary non-immigrant agricultural workers for three years and assessed $62,531 in civil money penalties after investigators found widespread violations of the federal H-2A program.
The department’s Wage and Hour Division learned H-2ALC Valentino Lopez, operating as Valentino Lopez, confiscated workers’ passports immediately after they arrived, failed to pay weeks of wages to more than a dozen workers, did not pay the inbound and outbound transportation expenses for workers, and charged workers fees between $150 and $8,000 to participate in the federal program.
The Atkinson-based Lopez recruited, hired, housed and transported H-2A program workers to pick blueberries at Ronnie Carter Farms Inc. in Sampson County. The program helps provide agricultural employers with foreign workers to perform temporary or seasonal work including planting, cultivating or harvesting labor.
Specifically, division investigators found that – in addition to the intimidating practice of collecting and retaining passports workers needed to leave the farm – Lopez violated federal regulations by doing the following:
- Failing to pay inbound transportation expenses to 75 workers during the 2020 and 2021 harvest and outbound transportation expenses to 47 workers in the 2020 season.
- Not paying 13 workers for their last few weeks of employment in the 2020 season.
- Charging 21 H-2A workers fees ranging from $150 to $8,000 to participate in the program, despite provisions prohibiting employers from passing along operating costs to employees.
- Attempting to conceal intimidation and threats by returning all passports and visas to workers immediately before investigators arrived.
The investigation also led to the recovery of $58,039 in wages owed to 72 workers.
“Workers in the H-2A program come to the U.S. legally to help agricultural employers meet seasonal demands and earn good wages to help support their families at home,” said Wage and Hour Division District Director Richard Blaylock in Raleigh. “Valentino Lopez chose to exploit and intimidate dozens of workers and charge fees illegally, and now has been held accountable.”
The division’s investigation spanned Lopez’s H-2A job order for the 2020 and 2021 growing seasons in North Carolina.
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 laws.
“The H-2A temporary agricultural employment program provides farmers with the additional workers they may need to put food on America’s tables,” Blaylock said. “However, this must not come at the expense of the safety and well-being of those workers. We urge growers to take proactive steps to ensure the labor contractors they hire comply fully with all regulations.”