Three strawberry farms were fined a total of $73,000 for employing children as young as 6 as pickers, the U.S. Labor Department said Friday.
A child-labor investigation in June discovered nine underage workers at farms in the Washington towns of Woodland and Ridgefield. Investigators found several violations of labor law, including failing to maintain proof-of-age records and pay minimum wage among others.
The farmers were Marty Peterson from Columbia Fruit in Woodland; George Hoffman of George Hoffman Farms and Lee Nguyen of Berry Good Farms of Ridgefield. A call to Columbia Fruit was not immediately returned; phone numbers for the two others were not available.
No defense lawyers were listed in the court documents.
A farmworker advocate said child labor is a recurring problem in farms in southwest Washington. Many underpay their workers, leading families to bring their children to help harvest.
"We pay attention to kids and talk to them," said Andrea Schmitt, an attorney for Columbia Legal Services who makes frequent trips to farms to inform workers of minimum wage law during harvest season. "We very often know a child has been working when that child's hands are stained with berry juice."
Washington farmers pay by the pound for harvested products, as well as the state's minimum wage of $8.67 an hour.
Jeffrey Genkos, director of the labor department's Wage and Hour Division in Portland, Ore., said investigators interviewed and photographed the child workers at the farms. The department then turned to the courts to halt the farms from shipping any of their products, which led to concessions from the farmers.
All three farms removed the underage workers, the department said.
"Agricultural employers must understand that the Labor Department will vigorously enforce federal labor laws, especially when it comes to protecting vulnerable workers such as children," Genkos said in a statement. "Agricultural employment is particularly dangerous for children, and the rules for their employment must be followed."
A vast majority of farmworkers in southwest Washington are Latino, or indigenous peoples from Mexico and Central America. Many are suspected of working in the country illegally.