07.14.2014  
 

Labor Department Fines Vineyard Contractor

Wente agrees to monitor labor contractor that must restore $24,000 back pay

 
by Jane Firstenfeld
 
“vineyard
 
Wente Vineyards worked with the U.S. Department of Labor to resolve complaints against one of its labor contractors.
San Francisco, Calif.—Many wineries in California and throughout the United States use the services of agricultural labor contractors that bring in immigrant or migrant employees to work during peak seasons. Despite the moving target of U.S. immigration policy, these contractors operate under the regulation of the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). If laws protecting employees are not upheld, wineries can also become party to regulatory action.

Last week, Wines & Vines received a notice from Jose Carnevali, deputy regional director of public affairs at the USDA’s San Francisco office, which cast light on a recent event and its resolution.

“The Wage and Hour Division in San Francisco has secured an enhanced compliance agreement with a large grower and distributor of wine grapes in Northern California's Livermore Valley region. The agreement follows an investigation of Wente Vineyards’ farm labor contractor Abel Mendoza that found wage and transportation violations under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act. Because of the severity of the findings, Wente Vineyards worked collaboratively with the division in putting together a solid compliance plan to prevent further violations of applicable agriculture labor laws by the company’s farm labor contractors.”

We spoke with Carnevali and Alberto Raymond, assistant district director for the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division, to learn how the contractor violated regulations, and how they will be avoided in the future. Raymond oversees enforcement in 13 Northern California counties from Monterey to the Oregon border. Although he could not provide specifics or a link to the Wente settlement, he explained DOL’s mission and procedures.

DOL enforcement is based on in-the-field inspections. “We are, as an office, very proactive in enforcing several laws. We are constantly out in agricultural counties monitoring employee wages and hours. We recognize that the wine and grape industry is growing. The mission of our organization is to enforce laws to protect workers—particularly low-wage workers who may not know their rights. We pick industries where employees are vulnerable.” Raymond said.

This was a case involving joint employment, he explained. “Our process is to go out to the field, talk to the employer, interview workers, inspect vehicles and housing, when applicable.” In this case, “We conducted investigation of the farmer (Wente) and then the contractor (Mendoza).” Raymond received the final agreement signed by Wente and the DOL on July 8. Wente Vineyards produces some 700,000 cases annually from its 3,000 acres of vineyards.

“The truth of the matter is that Wente should be recognized for stepping up and forming this agreement. Wente is assuming responsibility for its labor contractors. Wente will conduct routine inspections and … they will demand evidence of the contractors’ certification of registration (with DOL),” Raymond said.

The settlement came as something of a surprise to the DOL official. “We don’t run into this often,” Raymond acknowledged.

What’s the deal?
Wente has agreed to review wage statements and time records, crosscheck these every calendar month and provide their findings to the DOL. The winery will also request evidence that drivers who transport laborers to its worksites hold valid drivers licenses.

In return, the DOL will provide a foreperson at Wente facilities who will help conduct training in the operations. From start to finish, the entire process took only “a couple of months,” Raymond said.

Contractor Mendoza, who has, Raymond said, been working for Wente for more than 20 years, providing crews of as many as 170, has also agreed to comply with the agreement. “Mendoza will have to pay back pay and penalties.” Mendoza has agreed to pay $24,000 in back pay, according to Raymond.

“In this partnership, Wente agrees to let us know of any serious issues with other contractors, and will report any activities they are made aware of,” Raymond said. “We want compliance, and they want compliance.”

Raymond shared his bottom line: “The DOL and our team of investigators want to make sure that the riches of the industry truly trickles down to those picking the grapes.”

For more details about the DOL policies and mission, see the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act (MSPA); Wages and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and H-2A Temporary Agricultural Employment of Foreign Workers

Wente issued a statement through its spokesman, Paul Wagner at Balzac Communications. “Wente Family Estates is pleased to have played a constructive role in the resolution of this issue.”

Abel Mendoza did not respond to our requests for comment.

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