Following the recent disclosure that two of the largest industrial farms in southeast Minnesota had not been paying overtime wages to hourly employees, a trio of rural organizations is calling on the University of Minnesota and U of M Extension to dramatically increase their educational outreach and research activities in the area of farm labor violations. Centro Campesino (the Farmworker Center), the Land Stewardship Project (LSP), and the Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC) have combined forces to raise public awareness about “wage theft” on large-scale farms in Minnesota.
In a January settlement with the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, Hader Farms of Zumbrota, Minn., agreed to pay workers $17,633 in back overtime wages. In 2012, the Minnesota Appeals Court ordered Daley Farms of Lewiston, Minn., to pay $86,385 in back overtime wages to employees.
Daley Farms is a high-profile dairy operation in Winona County, milking approximately 1,500 cows and employing more than 40 workers. It was the site of the Winona Area Chamber of Commerce’s 2012 Family Night On The Farm, which drew 1,500 visitors on June 21. Hader Farms Partnership was the largest recipient of USDA crop subsidy payments in Goodhue County from 1995 to 2011, collecting more than $4.6 million during that period, according to the Environmental Working Group’s farm subsidy database.
Under Minnesota law, farms that have more than $500,000 in gross annual sales need to comply with the Minnesota Fair Labor Standards Act. Wage and hour law applies to all workers, regardless of status or documentation. Along with workers not being paid overtime, Centro Campesino, LSP and LEDC have documented other examples of violations on industrial farms in Minnesota, including:
1) Failure to provide a final paycheck after employee’s resignation or dismissal.
2) Failure to pay for all hours worked.
3) Docking of worker wages for damage to farm equipment or buildings.
4) Failure to inform injured workers of their rights to workers’ compensation.
5) Personnel policies that are not in compliance with the law.
According to LSP staff and members, the U of M was first notified in February 2012 of the need for greatly improved education of farm employers. LSP, LEDC and Centro Campesino have received minimal response from the University thus far. The three groups also want the University to be involved in conducting research on “wage theft” issues in conjunction with farmworker organizations and to provide farmworkers with information about their rights in the workplace.
“We’ve seen cases like these, particularly on large scale dairy and hog operations, for a number of years, and we continue to witness them,” said Ernesto Velez Bustos, executive director of Centro Campesino in Owatonna, Minn. “This is wage theft. Whether the farm workers are Minnesota natives or immigrant workers, not being paid your full wages is against the law in Minnesota.”
Barb Nelson of rural Lewiston is a member of LSP’s state policy committee that has pushed the U of M to be more responsive to the needs of small and mid-sized farms, as well as the environment. During the past 15 years, U of M Extension has been very involved with facilitating farm expansion, particularly in the livestock sector, according to LSP officials. Nelson is actively involved with U of M Extension as a master gardener and through her volunteer work at the Winona County Fair. However, she said that the University has lagged in its education of employers about worker rights.
“The University is the institution that everyone looks to,” she said. “In this case, it’s their responsibility to make sure that farm employers are educated. I’d bet that 80 percent of employers treat their employees well. The ones that don’t follow the rules put a black mark on those that do right by their workers and enjoy an unfair economic advantage. If they’re in business, it’s their obligation to know the labor laws.”
LEDC works with people that want to start their own business, some of whom currently support themselves as farmworkers.
“When we are out working in rural areas of the state, we hear stories of labor rights violations on these big livestock farms,” said Yolanda Cotterall, LEDC’s rural Minnesota outreach coordinator. “We’re actually not out there looking for these stories, but the stories are coming to us. They’re coming from the people we’re working with and from their friends and family members. Unfortunately, because these workers are often undocumented, they are afraid to report these violations to officials.”
CONTACTS: Ernesto Velez Bustos, Centro Campesino, 507-456-9272
Barb Nelson, Land Stewardship Project, 507-459-4696
Doug Nopar, Land Stewardship Project, 507-523-3366 or 507-452-2403
Yolanda Cotterall, Latino Economic Development Center, 612-724-5332 or 612-802-2650