Washington ramps up labor enforcement

Posted: Tuesday, September 08, 2009

SEATTLE - Bob Blank's frustration is evident when he talks about an inspection of his Okanogan County farm by U.S. Department of Labor wage inspectors.

"These people absolutely appeared to be bent on not helping, but fining the farms," Blank said. "The problem I have with that, in my case, it's the first time you show up in 35 years, and you tell me 'fines.' I'm gonna get (irritated) about that. You're not working with me. You're working against me."

In late June, the inspectors came to his apple and pear orchard in central Washington, surveyed his paperwork and the housing for his two dozen workers.

Even though the state labor department had given his farm a clean bill of health in recent years, the federal inspectors told him he would be fined. Blank, 71, said he became angry and worried when a fellow Okanogan County farmer received a $10,000 fine. In August, he finally got the letter saying he was being penalized for failing to "ensure housing safety and health" and had 30 days to pay the $5,225 fine.

"They don't tell me specifically what the problem is and no time frame to correct it," Blank said. "The question arises: Has this really anything to do with safety for workers?"

The number of inspections by the U.S. Department of Labor are expected to increase after President Barack Obama earmarked $30 million in his budget for the department to hire an additional 288 front-line wage inspectors nationwide.

The new inspectors are welcomed by labor advocates, but they're a cautionary development for employers.

"After the last 8 years, where inspectors all but disappeared at the federal level, we definitely welcome appropriating more money," said Erik Nicholson of the United Farmworkers of America. "We called those the dark ages - pretty much dead for eight years in terms of enforcement."

However, prior to the ramp-up, federal labor inspectors collected about $67,000 in back wages for 400 agricultural workers in Washington state in 2008, according to the department. Violations of housing codes and failure to disclose wages were some of the violations found. With six additional federal inspectors, the state will have 19 by year's end.

The inspectors will target low-wage industries that employ vulnerable workers, such as minors, recent immigrants who may be reluctant to complain, employees misclassified as independent contractors and disabled employees, said Jeannine Lupton, spokeswoman for the labor department in Seattle.

That means farms, hotels, restaurants and other industries that typically employ those workers will be scrutinized by the department.

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