(NewsNation) — Two North Carolina employers were hit with $139,039 in penalties after the U.S. Department of Labor found they shortchanged dozens of workers’ wages and tried to seize their passports and visas.
McClenny Farms Inc. of Mount Olive and Francisco Valadez Jr. of Smithfield violated federal H-2A regulations, the Department of Labor said in a news release last Thursday. The H-2A program allows employers to hire temporary, nonimmigrant workers to perform “agricultural labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature.”
Investigators with the department found that McClenny Farms received a contract to recruit and hire H-2A workers to harvest cucumbers, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, tobacco and watermelons in Wayne County, North Carolina. However, the agency discovered that Valadez, who had been debarred by the Department of Labor in 2020 for violating H-2A regulations, had been operating the contract on the farms’ behalf. It was determined by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division that the farm and Valadez had been acting as joint employers.
“McClenny Farms and Francisco Valadez Jr. took advantage of dozens of workers recruited to do the physically demanding work of picking produce and tobacco on farms in Wayne County,” Wage and Hour Division District Director Richard Blaylock said. “Our investigations found these employers violated their legal obligations and preyed on people who traveled to the U.S. for better-paying work simply to support themselves and their families back home.”
Upon arriving to the farm, the Department of Labor wrote, McClenny and Valadez would confiscate workers’ passports and visas to “restrict their ability to leave.”
Then, once employees were working, they were paid $8 per hour in cash instead of the $13.15 per hour stated in their work contract, according to the Department of Labor. Investigators found that McClenny and Valadez denied employees any pay for their first work of work.
A fixed worksite was not established per the job order’s requirements, the department said, and workers had their passports and visas confiscated upon arrival to the farm.
The Department of Labor says Valadez and McClenny did not reimburse workers for visa and application fees or transportation to the work site. Instead, workers were required to sign receipts without getting payments, investigators said. One bus driver would even demand workers pay $250 before getting on the vehicle, the labor department alleges.
In addition, the farm failed to keep accurate records, including employees’ earnings, hours statements and reasons for pay deductions, per the Department of Labor.
A message left at a number listed for McClenny Farms was not immediately returned Monday morning.
The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division was able to recover $97,100 in back wages for the workers. Valadez has again been debarred from participating in the H-2A program for two years.
In fiscal year 2022, the Wage and Hour Division recovered more than $5.8 million in back wages for 8,260 workers in the agricultural industry. Employers were assessed more than $7.9 million in civil money penalties for violations of federal laws after 879 investigations last year.