HONOLULU (AP) — A Kona coffee grower has paid more than $46,000 in fines and back wages over its treatment of coffee pickers from Mexico following an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor.
The department announced the action on Wednesday and hinted that it hopes it sends a message to other growers to follow the rules protecting migrant workers, whether legal or illegal. Kona Coffee Grounds, based in Holualoa, acknowledged it paid the money but denied any wrongdoing.
The 24 workers at issue were from Michoacán and were legally brought to the United States to work for Kona Coffee Grounds under the H2-A visa program for temporary agricultural workers. Under the program, growers agree to pay workers a set wage and provide a minimum amount of work as well as housing.
Terence Trotter, director of the Department of Labor's Honolulu office, said Kona Coffee Grounds also worked out an arrangement to pay workers based on how much coffee they picked. He said that's allowed but, because the crop was small, he said there were periods where the workers weren't able to make at least the $10.86 an hour they were contracted to make. Trotter also said the company couldn't provide at least 75 percent of the hours required by the contract.
The company paid $25,290 in back wages to the workers for those alleged violations of the H2-A. Trotter said it was also fined $21,000 for asking workers to sign a document signing away their rights to back wages should the company be found to violate the rules of the program.
Joe Fagundes, a lawyer for Kona Coffee Grounds, said the company paid the back wages and fines to avoid the expense of a protracted legal case.
The owner of the farm leased by Kona Coffee Grounds, Skip Dahlen, said the harvest was slow at the beginning and end, which is normal, but he said workers made about $15 an hour under the piece rate system. He said the workers also each had their own queen-sized bed, satellite television with 17 Spanish-language channels and refrigerators and that the government should go after the majority of farms that hire illegal workers instead. He said those workers are forced to camp out during the harvest.
"If they really cared about the people they'd be stopping and helping the people who are living under the blue tarps," said Dahlen, whose son runs Kona Coffee Grounds.
Trotter said illegal workers are still protected by other federal laws and growers can be forced to pay them back wages.
He said the department never discloses how it learns about alleged labor violations. However, he said it's not unusual for the department to do site visits on its own to check on migrant workers, who often are not aware of their legal rights
"We go out into the community and test compliance and do education outreach and we're going to continue to do that in the Hawaiian Islands," Trotter said.