Strawberry farmer ordered to pay millions in back wages, penalties.

USAID U.S. Agency for International Development/Flickr

From Monterey County Now:

by Ana Ceballos

For two years, a couple hundred farm workers contracted by Fernandez Farms Inc., through a temporary agricultural worker visa program, were defrauded.

Starting in 2010, workers brought to work at the Royal Oaks-based strawberry farm were forced to pay $125 a month for rent—bunk beds in trailers—even though that was an expense covered with the program. In addition to that, paychecks would routinely come in short to cover administrative costs of the program, a direct violation of the program’s rules, according to U.S. Department of Labor attorney Abigail Daquiz.

Investigators with the U.S. Department of Labor began to sift through records and came up with a long list of issues. Eventually, the department sued the president of the farm, Gonzalo Fernandez, on behalf of the workers in hopes to recoup $1,650 in kickbacks for each of the 249 temporary workers.

 On Aug. 25, after two years of court proceedings, Administrative Law Judge Richard Clark ordered Fernandez to pay $2.4 million—$1.1 million of which will go to pay back immigrant and domestic workers—in back wages and penalties. Clark said evidence showed Fernandez engaged in a “systematic and extensive disregard” of the H-2A visa program and when confronted interfered with the investigation by “fabricating evidence and “intimidating the vulnerable employees.” Daquiz says workers testified to being coached on what to say to investigators.

Aside from defrauding temporary workers, Clark found that Fernandez’s actions “deprived domestic workers of paying work.” Five domestic workers, who applied to work at the farm in 2011, were rejected. In that year, 135 temporary workers were financially abused, according to Daquiz.

During court proceedings, at least three workers testified against Fernandez.

It was incredible to have the workers talk about their experience and see them confront their employer, who had control over them,” Daquiz says. “We want workers to know the Department of Labor is serious about protecting the rights of the farmworkers.”

For Daquiz, one of the important achievements was showing that farmers can also be held liable as individuals and cannot hide behind large corporations. Fernandez, however, has never admitted to any wrongdoing and did not respond to numerous calls for comment for this story.

Read more form Monterey County Now