3 area berry farms fined for underage pickers

Labor officials find nine 6- to 11-year-olds at work

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

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Children as young as 6 were picking strawberries for no pay at three Southwest Washington farms, in violation of federal law, officials with the U.S. Labor Department alleged Friday.

Labor officials said they found nine children between the ages of 6 and 11 at work on the farms on June 25. George Hoffman Farms and Berry Good Farms, both of Ridgefield, and Woodland’s Columbia Fruit LLC were collectively fined $73,050 for allegedly violating provisions of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

The enforcement announced Friday shines a rare light on what is a common practice at berry farms in the region, according to farm worker advocates.

Historically, migrant workers often worked alongside their children harvesting produce to be paid by weight or volume, but laws now place restrictions on that tradition.

Federal law prohibits children younger than 12 from working in agriculture, even when supporting employed family members, said Jeffrey Genkos, director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division’s Portland office. (Those restrictions do not apply to U-Pick operations, where families pay the farmer to pick berries, rather than the farmer paying for the work.)

State and federal laws also require all workers to receive minimum wage for their time, even if they are being paid by amount harvested, said Andrea Schmitt, staff attorney with Columbia Legal Services in Olympia. “Piece rates should serve as incentive to work quickly so that you can make more than minimum wage,” but even slow workers must be paid the minimum, she said.

The children found working in Ridgefield and Woodland were with adults — some with parents, others with relatives or family friends, Genkos said. The adults were employees of the farms, not independent contractors, he said.

“Hiring the children didn’t occur, but they were out there,” Genkos said. “It may have been that the parents were employed, but the kids were producing something for the grower.”

Employers are liable for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act if they benefit from those violations, he said.

Though Genkos said he believes it may be “fairly common practice” for children to work on farms, it is relatively rare for such young children to be uncovered during investigations.

Schmitt said she encounters child farm workers in Southwest Washington every week during berry-picking season, yet she’s seen no enforcement in her three years visiting farms in Woodland, Ridgefield and La Center.

“It’s different from other regions where I’ve done outreach,” she said. “It may be that it’s because with berries you don’t have to be tall. You don’t find kids picking in apple orchards, for example.”

She also speculated that enforcement has been focused on other regions of the state, where agriculture is more central to the economy.

“I’ve talked to kids who pick very adult quantities of berries — up to 200 pounds of strawberries in a day — and who are working very long hours, from early in the morning to dinner time,” Schmitt said of her visits to Southwest Washington farms. Some children have complained of back pain that prevented them from sleeping, and others of painful bruises on their knees from hours spent kneeling on the job, she said.

A majority of farm workers in Clark County are Latino, and many are suspected of working in the country illegally. Genkos said he had no information about the citizenship or legal status of the adults and children who were working at the three Southwest Washington farms. “That’s not our jurisdiction,” he said.

The three farms all immediately removed their underage workers and signed consent judgments in which they promised to attend training and to avoid future Fair Labor Standards Act violations, according to a Department of Labor press release.

Columbia Fruit was fined $16,350 for allegedly employing two underage workers; George Hoffman Farms $32,350 for allegedly employing four; and Berry Good farms $24,350 for allegedly employing three. A portion of the fines will go to the children, to ensure they are paid at least minimum wage for the time spent working, Genkos said.

All three farms have a right to appeal the fines, and Genkos said he expects to see appeals in the near future.

An employee at Columbia Fruit LLC said that the person authorized to speak to the media was unavailable to comment Friday, and representatives from Berry Good Farms did not respond to a message seeking comment. George Hoffman Farms could not be reached.