The Madison tomato grower has repeatedly violated federal laws with hiring practices, the report found


A state investigation found that Backyard Farms in Madison has repeatedly violated federal labor laws by laying off U.S. workers to make way for incoming foreign workers. The entrance to the company will be shown on Wednesday. Rich Abrahamson / Morning Watchman

MADISON – Backyard Farms, one of the country’s leading tomato producers, has repeatedly violated federal labor laws by firing local workers to make room for incoming foreign workers, according to a U.S. Department of Labor investigation.

The producer paid domestic workers lower wages compared to what migrant workers earned doing the same job, federal inspectors said in a 48-page report reviewing company practices from 2017 to 2019 that did not include registered contractors performing the work, a violation of federal law.

The company also did not provide employees with copies of their employment contracts, as required, the report said.

As a result of the violations, Backyard Farms was fined $ 245,351 in arrears of wages and $ 92,114 in civil fines.

The federal report recently received from Morning Sentinel detailed how Backyard Farms – based in the town of Madison, Somerset County and one of the largest employers in the area – notified temporary domestic workers that there was a “lack of work.” explain why they were fired. But the company cited poor performance and absenteeism for the layoffs on administrative records, the report said.

Federal law mandates that employment opportunities be given first to domestic workers and not to migrants.

“The employer claimed that his human resources department’s emails to recruitment agencies dismissing workers for lack of work did not reflect the real reasons for the end of assignments,” the report said. “According to Backyard Farms, the HR staff did not know the reasons for the break-ups when they emailed the temps to end due to a lack of work.”

Investigators found that backyard farms violated labor regulations under the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Visa Program and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers Protection Act. H-2A is a state name for migrant workers. In particular, it was found that the company gave preferential treatment to migrant workers and failed to contact former domestic workers prior to hiring seasonal workers, the report said.

The Department of Labor first announced its findings in March, but the report, released later, was part of a Morning Sentinel request for the Freedom of Information Act, which detailed the violations and the investigation itself.

Edmund Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the Department of Labor, said in an email that the company “completed payment of wages and fines this March”.

“When a deal is reached, it includes a payment schedule,” said Fitzgerald.

Backyard Farms had three main jobs for its farm workers: plant tending, picking, and packer. Plant care obligations include defoliation of plants that grow taller in the company’s huge greenhouses. The job description for seasonal workers was limited to defoliation in 2018.

“The employer said it decided to hire H-2A staff for defoliation in 2018 because it defaulted on defoliation during the 2018 H-2A certification period,” the report said, noting that domestic servants sometimes performed the same duties.

“Many of these workers were in appropriate employment during the validity period,” although the exact number of workers was not counted and that “during the validity period in 2018, workers were in appropriate employment but not receiving the H-2A rate,” the report said.

For example, a worker was paid an hourly rate of $ 13.25 per hour during a shift on July 27, 2019. Another employee doing the same tasks on the same day was paid an hourly rate of $ 11.62.

“Infringements were found in 103 employees in corresponding employment who were not paid the H-2A minimum rate.”

Backyard Farms was represented in the federal investigation by two Michigan lawyers, Maria Dwyer and James Stadler. They did not respond to multiple email requests to discuss the results of the report.

The intent of the H-2A programs, according to the Department of Labor, is to enable agricultural employers facing a shortage of domestic workers to hire foreign workers to fill jobs on a temporary or seasonal basis. The Migrant and Seasonal Agriculture Protection Act sets employment standards for wages, housing, transportation, disclosure and records.

The investigation was the first federal investigation against Backyard Farms, despite the fact that the owner, Mastronardi Produce Ltd. of Kingsville, Ontario, has participated in two other investigations in the past 12 years.

The first in 2009 was for a Romulus, Michigan-based Mastronardi company that violated “warehouse workers who were not paid while waiting for pickle trucks.” In this case, three workers were paid arrears.

A 2013 investigation against a subsidiary of the company’s Coldwater, Mich., Found “Violations of H-2A for illegal deductions, non-compliance with payroll requirements, failure to provide workers with a copy of their employment contract, and failure to pay necessary payments ”. Pay rates. “In this case, wages in arrears of more than $ 29,000 were paid.

The investigation into Backyard Farms began in July 2019. Investigators based in Manchester, New Hampshire concluded they had violated state regulations by firing domestic workers who were employed through temporary employment agencies to make room for the incoming foreign workers to accomplish.

According to the report, “a dismissal for lack of work is only permitted if all H-2A workers are dismissed first”. The agency workers were often fired for no good reason and were offered employment with foreign workers, federal authorities found.

Company employees often cited performance and absenteeism as reasons for not putting temporary workers on hold, but investigators found no supporting record or other evidence to support the claims.

“Employers can now say what they want about workers’ performance, but at the time of the layoffs, recruitment agencies and workers were not notified that workers were fired for performance and absenteeism,” the report said.

The federal findings did not prevent Backyard Farms from continuing to participate in H-2A programs, Fitzgerald said.

The company was founded in 2007 and bought by Mastronardi Produce in 2017. In Madison, it operates the two greenhouses with an area of ​​42 hectares at 131 River Road.

Mastronardi Produce was founded in the 1940s and manufactures, packages and sells more than 50 varieties of GMO-free tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and other products across the country. Your products are packaged under the SUNSET brand.

The Madison greenhouses use hydroponics and grow a variety of tomatoes that are shipped to stores like Hannaford, Shaw’s, Walmart, and Whole Foods.

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