The US Department of Labor has debarred a North Carolina farm labor contractor from employing temporary nonimmigrant agricultural workers for three years and assessed $62,531 in civil money penalties after investigators found widespread violations of the federal H-2A temporary agricultural workers program.
The program helps provide agricultural employers with foreign workers to perform temporary or seasonal work including planting, cultivating or harvesting labor.
“The H-2A temporary agricultural employment program provides farmers with the additional workers they may need to put food on America’s tables,” said Wage and Hour Division District Director Richard Blaylock in Raleigh, North Carolina. “However, this must not come at the expense of the safety and well-being of those workers. We urge growers to take proactive steps to ensure the labor contractors they hire comply fully with all regulations.”
According to the department’s Wage and Hour Division, Atkinson, North Carolina-based H-2ALC Valentino Lopez — operating as Valentino Lopez — recruited, hired, housed and transported H-2A program workers to pick blueberries at Ronnie Carter Farms Inc. in Sampson County. It alleges Lopez confiscated workers’ passports immediately after they arrived, failed to pay weeks of wages to more than a dozen workers, did not pay the inbound and outbound transportation expenses for workers, and charged workers fees between $150 and $8,000 to participate in the federal program.
In addition, division investigators found that Lopez also specifically violated federal regulations by doing the following:
- Failing to pay inbound transportation expenses to 75 workers during the 2020 and 2021 harvest and outbound transportation expenses to 47 workers in the 2020 season.
- Not paying 13 workers for their last few weeks of employment in the 2020 season.
- Charging 21 H-2A workers fees ranging from $150 to $8,000 to participate in the program, despite provisions prohibiting employers from passing along operating costs to employees.
- Attempting to conceal intimidation and threats by returning all passports and visas to workers immediately before investigators arrived.
- The investigation also led to the recovery of $58,039 in wages owed to 72 workers.
The division’s investigation spanned Lopez’s H-2A job orders for the 2020 and 2021 growing seasons in North Carolina.