Aug 22, 2012
Labor Department takes legal action against Michigan farms

The U.S. Department of Labor sent out a press release Aug. 22, stating it is taking legal action to protect migrant workers at three Michigan farm operations in Cass and Manistee counties, following investigations conducted by its Wage and Hour Division.

A civil contempt petition has been filed against Berrybrook Farms in Dowagiac, Mich., alleging violations of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA). Additionally, a separate complaint has been filed against D. Howes LLC Farms and Howes Co., both in Copemish, Mich., alleging violations of the MSPA and Fair Labor Standards Act’s minimum wage provisions, according to the press release.

The department filed a petition for civil contempt against Berrybrook Enterprises and its owner, Joseph Hassle Sr., after Wage and Hour Division investigators determined that the company and Hassle were in contempt of a June 2010 consent judgment because they failed to comply with six of MSPA’s housing standards, according to the release.

Berrybrook Enterprises, an 11,600-acre fruit and vegetable farm, operates housing facilities in Cass County for migrant agricultural workers and their families. Since 2001, the Wage and Hour Division has found MSPA housing violations during five different investigations conducted in 2001, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011. The violations found during the most recent inspection in 2011 (which led to the current petition) include a lack of sanitary facilities for storing and preparing food, an inadequate supply of hot running water for bathing and laundry and infestations by rodents and insects. All of these violations also had been cited in 2009, according to the press release.

The complaint filed against D. Howes LLC also names company owner Darryl Howes and Ron Howes, who operates Howes Co., for violations at their cucumber and strawberry operations on 60 acres in Manistee County. At the time of the division’s investigation, Darryl Howes Farms employed approximately 58 workers and Howes Co. employed 24 workers. The migrant and seasonal agricultural workers were mainly from Texas and Florida, and were incorrectly classified as independent contractors instead of as regular employees, according to the release.

The complaint alleges 11 violations of MSPA’s housing standards including failing to provide adequate shelters, prevent infestations by insects or pests, provide an adequate supply of hot running water and maintain toilets in a sanitary condition. The minimum wage violations were, in part, the result of the employers paying workers on a piece-rate basis that did not add up to the federal minimum of $7.25 per hour during all work weeks. The company also failed to maintain records that show, among other things, the names of all persons engaged in the harvesting process, the hours worked each work day, the total hours worked each work week and the regular wage rates at which the workers were employed, according to the release.

In addition to the labor violations, the complaint also alleges interference with the investigation. The complaint specifically mentions four instances when interviews of agricultural workers had to be terminated because Darryl Howes or one of his employees attended the interviews with video cameras and refused to leave, according to the release.

For more information, click here, or call 866-4US-WAGE.





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