Burbank blueberry farm sued by federal government

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KENNEWICK (AP) — An Eastern Washington blueberry farm and packing house has been sued by the U.S. Department of Labor in a dispute over inspections by wage and hour investigators.

Blue Mountain Farms and Blue Mountain Farms Packing in Burbank, Wash., initially agreed to allow investigators on their property on July 23. But when investigators returned a second day, the Tri-City Herald reports the owners threatened to call the sheriff.

The Department of Labor filed a lawsuit in Eastern Washington U.S. District Court against the farm to gain access to its property before the blueberry picking season ends. The Department of Labor indicated in court documents that it is cracking down on Northwest blueberry farmers after finding two years ago that many were not complying with child labor and minimum wage laws for migrant and seasonal workers.

In court documents, Blue Mountain attorney Timothy Bernasek said he negotiated by phone an agreement that federal inspectors could conduct 15 interviews in the blueberry fields and seven in the packing shed.

If the Department of Labor wanted to do more interviews later, Manuel Lucero, who led the department’s investigation, would notify Blue Mountain’s attorney, said Ryan Brock, a Blue Mountain owner, in court documents.

But Lucero said in court documents that he negotiated a number of interviews to be conducted, and only for that day. Inspectors had already spent more than two hours at Blue Mountain before starting worker interviews and the work day was ending two hours later at 12:30 p.m., he said.

The next day investigators returned to Blue Mountain. When Brock arrived and learned that five investigators were in one of his fields, he drove there and told them they did not have permission to be on his property.

The Blue Mountain attorney received a letter from the Department of Labor saying it had found apparent minimum wage and overtime violations at the farm and packing house. The government had declared the blueberries “hot goods” and had asked Blue Mountain voluntarily not to ship them, according to the letter.

“My understanding is that there is still an ongoing investigation of my operation,” Brock said in a court document filed July 26, the day after the letter was sent. “I was not then and have not as of (the) time of this declaration been made aware by the United States Department of Labor of anything specific that my operation might have done to violate the minimum wage, overtime or child labor laws.”

Brock said Blue Mountain wanted to control investigators’ access because of concerns about disruption to work, Brock said.

Investigators need access to fields to conduct time studies to ensure workers are receiving sufficient pay, said Ruben Rosalez, regional wage and hour administrator, in court documents.

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