New Labor Inspectors Unwelcome to Some

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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 anthing to do with safety for workers?"

The number of inspections by the U.S. Department of Labor are expected to increase after President 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.

Earlier this year, an undercover investigation by the Government Accountability Office found the labor department's wage and hour division was doing a poor job of helping the nation's most vulnerable workers.

But for Ron Gaskill, labor specialist at American Farm Bureau, which represents farmers in the nation's capital, the addition of labor inspectors and Homeland Security's announcement of businesses being audited for immigration purposes signals stepped-up enforcement of employers, something, he said, that his organization expected from the Obama administration.

Labor advocates say thousands of low-wage workers across the country will benefit from having more inspections and enforcement of existing federal codes, including the assurances that people are paid minimum wage and overtime. They contend that cut backs at the labor department during the Bush administration led employers to take advantage of workers.

"It's a major step," said Bruce Raynor, president of the union Workers United-SEIU. "This will catch violators and scare some of them into compliance."

But in Washington state, farmers like Blank are concerned about being heavily fined. According to the Washington Farm Bureau, about 30 farmers in Okanogan County have been inspected since last fall.

Dan Fazio, director of employer services for the Washington Farm Bureau, said the labor department oversteps its authority by inspecting permanent housing and too readily gives out fines.

"I understand you're trying to protect vulnerable workers, but farmers are vulnerable too," Fazio said. "And I understand a lot of housing went in in the '60s and '70s and I would admit is in rough condition, but does it help for a farmer that's barely hanging on to get a $10,000 fine? Is what they're doing constructive? I don't think so."

In Okanogan, Blank's farm workers have left for the year. His farm produces revenue between $375,000 and $600,000 on average, depending on the year. For him, the state's way of inspecting farm labor is better. If a violation is found, state inspectors give a two-week period for the farmer to fix it, and a follow up visit is given.

"The feds don't work that way," Blank said. "They see a problem and see a fine ..."