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Sonoma Winemaker, Labor Contractor To Pay Penalties For Poor Worker Housing Conditions

HEALDSBURG (CBS SF) -- A farm labor contractor and a winemaker must pay $42,300 in penalties for providing poor housing conditions to farm workers in Sonoma County, U.S. Department of Labor officials said.

Between June and September 2015, labor department officials conducted an investigation into the housing facility, which was located in Healdsburg on property owned by Ridge Vineyards Inc. and managed by Four
Seasons Vineyard Management Inc.

Labor department officials determined the two companies were both liable for failing to ensure the safety and health of workers living at the housing offered to them.

"Vineyard owners who use contractors to recruit and hire farm workers can be jointly responsible for ensuring these workers are being paid in compliance with the law and housed and transported safely," Susana Blanco, director of the labor department's Wage and Hour Division in San Francisco, said in a statement.

Farm workers living at the facility were exposed to electrical wiring in the living area, a sharp knife-like metal object sticking out of the structure permanently, and a bathroom that lacked proper ventilation and was deemed unsanitary, according to the labor department.

Additionally, the facility lacked protective screens and doors, which led to infestations by insects, rodents and other vermin. A third-story loft was also deemed a threat to worker safety in the event of a fire since there was only one entry and exit ladder, labor department officials said.

Four Seasons Vineyard Management was not authorized to provide housing nor to collect rent, but the company did in fact collect rent by deducting a rental fee from the farm workers' pay and turned over the money to Ridge Vineyards, labor department officials said.

In addition to the penalties, both companies must also jointly pay $1,750 in back wages to 10 employees for the rent that was illegally deducted from their pay.

Four Seasons Vineyard Management was not immediately available for comment. An employee at Ridge Vineyards said the company would not be commenting on the matter.

The Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act safeguards the rights of migrant and seasonal agricultural workers by establishing employment standards regarding wages, housing, transportation, disclosures and record keeping, according to the labor department.

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