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Idaho farm gave workers a choice: Illegal low wages or deportation, investigation finds

UPDATED: Fri., Feb. 25, 2022

By Rachel Spacek Idaho Statesman

In U.S. foreign labor programs, workers place their well-being in the hands of U.S. employers, who are required by law to pay required wages and provide safe living conditions.

An Idaho potato farm failed to do that, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

A Department of Labor investigation found Jorgensen Management Inc., a potato farm in southeast Idaho, failed to pay its workers a total of $159,256 in wages and did not reimburse them for transportation costs. Jorgensen Management also threatened to end its workers’ contracts and “send workers back to Mexico” if they did not accept the lower wages, the investigation found.

The Jorgensen Management workers in Bancroft, Idaho, were part of the H-2A visa program, a seasonal program that allows agricultural employers to bring in foreign workers to temporarily fill jobs when they can’t find enough domestic workers. The employers are required by the Department of Labor to pay a set wage and provide workers with transportation and housing.

In addition to failing to pay workers their legal wage, the Department of Labor also found Jorgensen’s housing and safety standards for its employees did not meet “mandatory housing safety and health standards.”

“By threatening and shortchanging some of the lowest paid workers in our nation, Jorgensen Management showed a willful disregard for the law,” said Carrie Aguilar, the Department of Labor wage and hour district director in Portland. “They created a toxic workplace and victimized these vulnerable workers. The outcome of this investigation sends a strong message to other employers that the Wage and Hour Division will not tolerate abuses of the H-2A program and will protect the rights of all people working in the U.S.”

The Wage and Hour District investigation led the Department of Labor to recover $159,256 in unpaid wages and assess $25,430 in civil money penalties.

Jorgensen Management also failed to pay 69 U.S. workers their required rates, according to the department.

‘Scare tactics’ in H-2A program, former farm worker says

The Jorgensen Management H-2A program violations were not surprising, said Irene Ruiz, a bilingual community organizer with the Idaho Organization of Resource Councils and Visión 2C, a farm worker advocacy group in Canyon County.

Ruiz was a farm worker in Idaho for 10 years, and the stories of workers being exploited were familiar to her, she said.

“As a former farm worker, it is disheartening to see workers treated like this,” Ruiz said. “These are people who put food on our tables and on our grocery store shelves. They worked through the pandemic, nonstop.”

The United Farm Workers, a national farm worker labor union, has urged President Joe Biden’s administration to conduct an investigation into the federal H-2A program because of consistent violations.

“In this case, there was abuse and tactics to scare farm workers into working for less,” Ruiz said. “You hear about the scare tactics and intimidation employers use as ways not to pay their workers.”

The United Farm Workers sent a letter demanding an investigation into the foreign labor program after reports that said workers in Georgia were required to dig onions up with their bare hands and paid 20 cents per bucket; they were allegedly threatened with guns and violence, according to a VICE news report.

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