The U.S. Department of Labor is accusing a garlic grower of violating worker-safety and transportation laws in connection with a 2015 van crash that killed four farm laborers on Highway 152 in Merced County.
The unusual move in U.S. District Court in Fresno is aimed at sending a sterner message to growers that they cannot use a labor contractor as a screen to absolve themselves from responsibility for complying with federal safety laws covering employees being driven to fields, said Susan Seletsky, an attorney for the Department of Labor.
“Our efforts here are to have employers take responsibility and be accountable for employees who work for them regardless of whether they work through contractors,” Seletsky said. “They’ve been able to squeak through, and we’re going to show they can’t.”
The case arose from a June 20, 2015, crash that killed four farmworkers, all women, returning to the Merced area from a day of picking garlic in Gilroy for Valley Garlic Inc., which also does business as Coalinga-based Sequoia Packing.
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Ill-conceived and not legally viable.
Patrick Moody, attorney for Valley Garlic, of the merits of the Labor Department’s case
The driver, who was unlicensed, had taken seven workers to Gilroy in the morning, a distance of about 84 miles, according to the complaint.
The van was owned and operated by an employee of X-Treme Ag, a Kerman-based labor contractor that provided the workers and charged each of them $10 a day for transportation to and from fields, according to the complaint filed Aug. 5. The company’s contract, however, prohibited it from providing transportation, a clause common to documents signed with growers, according to the Labor Department.
The eastbound Chevrolet van drifted off the highway between Los Banos and Chowchilla, then oversteered to return to the lane and flipped over several times, according to the California Highway Patrol. Six workers, who were not wearing seat belts, were ejected. Three were pronounced dead at the scene; a fourth died of her injuries several days later.
Before the accident, Valley Garlic had done nothing to enforce the transportation prohibition, according to the complaint. After the Labor Department told the Coalinga-based company that its contractor was transporting workers illegally, Valley Garlic sent a one-page letter to X-Treme reminding it of the contract prohibition. But Valley Garlic did not investigate or terminate the contract — instead, it signed a new agreement six days after the accident that was “substantively identical” to the previous contract, the complaint alleges.
Valley Garlic, X-Treme Ag and several of each companies’ employees were charged with violating the Migrant and Seasonal Workers Protection Act, which governs terms of employment for agricultural workers, and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which regulates wages.
Such allegations generally have been resolved between the Labor Department and employers in administrative proceedings that result in monetary penalties and agreements to remedy the violations, Seletsky said.
“That hasn’t been very effective,” said Seletsky, adding that no similar case has been taken to U.S. District Court in California in at least 15 years.
They’ve been able to squeak through, and we’re going to show they can’t.
Susan Seletsky, an attorney for the U.S. Department of Labor, on why the government is pursuing the case
In addition to the transportation-related charges, the defendants are accused of failing to compensate workers for their time spent traveling to fields and attending training, and of failing to pay the promised hourly rate.
Patrick Moody, attorney for Valley Garlic, said the Labor Department’s case is “ill-conceived and not legally viable,” in part because it presumes the contractor and grower function as co-employers of the laborers.
“We had a written agreement between our client and the labor contractors that they were prohibited from providing transportation,” Moody said. “Any transportation that might have been provided would violate that contract.”
Valley Garlic functioned as an employer “as a matter of economic reality” under both federal acts because the company set work terms and supervised the labor, the complaint alleges.
An attorney for the labor contractor declined to comment.