A recent investigation from the U.S. Department of Labor found that three farms in Santa Maria and one farm in Nipomo failed to meet the pay, benefits and personal protections required in the H-2A program.
The program passed back in 1986, has allowed employers to hire foreign workers for seasonal jobs. The Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division conducted a series of investigations from April 2020 to February 2022. They found that five farms failed to provide meals or kitchen facilities, did not pay transportation and meal costs, and shortchanged workers' wages while also not providing them contracts.
Assistant District Director for the Wage and Hour Division, Francisco Ocampo, said the agriculture cases he has worked on the Central Coast have amplified in recent years because of the growing demand for H-2A employees across local farms.
Of the Santa Maria businesses investigated, Adam Brothers Farming paid more than $94,000 in back wages to 30 employees, Boavista Farms paid more than $43,000 to 28 employees, and Profresco Incorporated paid more than $50,000 to over 400 employees.
SARC, the one farm investigated in Nipomo, paid nearly $35,000 in back wages to 42 employees.
Labor officials say if the employers investigated continue falling short on H-2A requirements, greater repercussions could follow.
"My hope is we're not going to find any violations the second time around because they got the message the first time," Ocampo told KSBY News. "They understand fully that if we have to go back and find more violations, the penalties will be much higher than they faced the first time."
The Mixteco Indigena Community Organzing Project, otherwise known as MICOP, has worked to support farm worker rights on the Central Coast. They say their team works closely with various agencies to ensure workers receive fair wages and working conditions, especially as the summer heat draws nearer.
Community Organizer from the group, Fernando Martinez elaborated on the issue.
"They are the ones who produce the strawberries, the grapes, the blackberries. They are the backbone of the agriculture industry and if they don't have the right working conditions they won't be able to produce what we see in the stores." Martinez said.
The Department of Labor says the next steps in the investigation include making sure employers pay their designated back wages and penalty fines, followed by ensuring the H-2A requirements continue to be met.
The fifth farm that was found to be in violation is located in San Martin.