In what the Department of Labor says is a record amount for H-2A cases, onion grower Peri & Sons has agreed to pay more than $2.3 million in back wages to 1,365 workers for violations of the temporary agricultural worker program.
“Peri & Sons did not attempt to negotiate down the amount owed. We are very happy we were able to recover full restitution for the employees,” said Richard Newton, regional director for the Wage and Hour Division of the Labor Department in Sacramento, Calif.
In addition to $2.34 million in back wages, Peri & Sons, Yerington, Nev., has been ordered to pay a $500,000 civil fine for violating the provisions of the H-2A visa program.
Officials with Peri & Sons referred questions to their general counsel, but he did not immediately respond to calls for comment on the case.
Newton said the department does not generally release information about how possible violators come to their attention. He said sometimes cases begin because of a complaint from an employee or a business competitor. Other cases are opened as a result of routine regional reviews or reviews of certain industries.
The department began investigating Peri & Sons in late 2009, Newton said. The violations covered in the case occurred during the 2009 onion season.
Wage and Hour Division investigators found that Peri & Sons’ workers involved in irrigation, harvesting, packing and shipping onions were not paid properly. All of the 1,365 workers involved in the case came to the U.S. from Mexico as part of the H-2A temporary visa program.
For most of the employees, earnings were below the hourly rate required by the H-2A program, as well as being below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Investigators also discovered that workers were not paid for time spent in mandatory pesticide training sessions or reimbursed for subsistence expenses while traveling to and from the U.S., as required by the H-2A rules.
Peri & Sons also failed to pay for the workers’ return transportation costs at the end of the contract period, as was required.
“We did not have any trouble at all with Peri & Sons,” Newton said. “They were always willing to sit down and discuss how we could reach an agreement to pay the workers what they were owed.”
Newton said on July 11 that a check from Peri & Sons for the $2.34 million in back wages should be arriving at his office “any day now.” Once the department has the money, a specialized unit will begin tracking down the workers. Newton said individual amounts have been calculated for each worker who is owed back wages.
“We can’t always find everyone, but we usually distribute most of the money in these kinds of cases,” Newton said.
If all of the workers can’t be found, any remaining money is held for three years. At the end of three years, Newton said, any money remaining is deposited with the U.S. Treasury Department.