Infractions lead to standards for ag employers

Four Upcountry farms and one farm labor contractor were fined by the United States Department of Labor last year for violating minimum wage and other federal standards for migrant fieldworkers, prompting Maui County to adopt a code of conduct for agricultural employers.

The department’s Wage and Hour Division conducted several investigations on the Valley Isle last year to make sure farms were compliant with federal laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Migrant and Seasonal Agriculture Worker Protection Act. The round of investigations focused on farms and labor contractors in the Upcountry area. Department officials declined to say whether the investigations were prompted by a complaint or as random inspections.

Investigators found that 57 field laborers working on Escobedo Farm, Otani Farms and F.E. Traje Farm were not paid the federal minimum wage of at least $7.25 per hour, according to Terence Trotter, director of the Wage and Hour Division’s Honolulu District Office.

“Some fieldworkers were paid a monthly stipend for all hours worked that was insufficient to cover the minimum hourly wage requirements,” Trotter said. “Also, some fieldworkers were mistakenly thought to be ‘independent contractors’ and were paid a piece rate that did not always average at least the federal minimum wage.”

Kula Country Farms was cited for other violations, including failure to provide safe transportation – tire tread was “completely worn down” and workers were transported in the rear of a pickup truck without a secured seat – failure to post the MSPA poster in a conspicuous location and failure to provide workers with individual wage statements.

A farm labor contractor was also fined for various violations, though department officials did not disclose the name of the business because the case is still pending.

A total of $10,225 in fines was assessed and collected from the five Maui businesses, Trotter said.

“We haven’t been in this area of Maui before so we wanted to get a snapshot of what’s going on in the community,” Trotter said. “These fines weren’t set up to punish (these farms), they were set up to recognize there is a violation, but not one of a repeat or willful nature per se.”

Trotter said that all of the growers worked cooperatively with the department to correct areas of deficiency.

Representatives from the Maui County Office of Economic Development and the Maui County Farm Bureau said that it was unfair for the department to come in and assess fines when most farmers on Maui were never informed or educated of the federal standards.

“When you have an inconsistent and unclear patchwork of rules at the county, state and federal levels, it often means farmers are confused and caught in the middle,” Maui County Farm Bureau Executive Director Warren Watanabe said in an email response.

Watanabe added that many federal regulations are written for migrant farmworkers on the Mainland and are not adapted to “local differences.”

“Most of the farmworkers here are locals. . . . In many cases, farmworkers are also family members who are part of the family business. But these federal laws are applied to farms in Hawaii as if we were on the Mainland, even if they don’t really match our situation,” Watanabe said.

Maui County Economic Development Coordinator Teena Rasmussen agreed that many Maui farmers, some of whom don’t even own a computer, were never informed of the lengthy federal regulations they’re required to abide by. She said that the Department of Labor, which does not have a district office on Maui, has not done enough outreach with the farmers here.

“There’s only been about two workshops in the last five to seven years I think. They (the department) have been more active in the last three years but prior to that there was very little information coming out to the farmers,” Rasmussen said.

“You have to tell these people what the rules are before you start enforcing them,” she said.

Rasmussen said that the county hopes the Department of Labor will come to Maui at least once a year to do a special training and education session for farm employers.

The Maui County code of conduct adopted last month requires agricultural employers who lease land from the county or are recipients of county grants to comply with federal labor standards relating to child labor, wage, record keeping and safety laws.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at