By RICHARD BURGESS
July 20, 2012
An Abbeville seafood processor has paid $52,750 in back wages and faces another $16,000 in penalties in an investigation into pay for foreign workers, the U.S. Department of Labor announced Tuesday.
The investigation involved 64 Hispanic seafood workers at Harvest Time Seafood, according to information from the Labor Department.
The federal agency alleged the company improperly paid some workers less than the hourly wage required under the federal H-2b visa program for temporary foreign workers and in some cases less than the federal minimum wage.
The H-2b wage, determined by the prevailing wages paid to U.S. workers doing similar work, is around $7.84 an hour, according to Labor Department spokesman Juan Rodriguez. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour.
The wages were allegedly brought down through the improper deductions from paychecks for work visas, travel, food and work gear, as well as through the practice of paying employees based on how much seafood they processed rather than a set hourly rate, according to the Labor Department.
Harvest Time Seafood owner Kevin Dartez said he willingly opened his doors to investigators from the Labor Department and that he did not intentionally violate any labor regulations.
Dartez said he did not know deducting expenses from paychecks was an issue, and he said that in some cases, he was deducting for gloves and other supplies he sold to employees at a discount.
“Everything that we were doing to help them, they (the Labor Department) said it hurts us,” Dartez said.
Dartez has settled the back wage dispute but said he was not aware of the additional $16,000 in possible civil penalties.
Harvest Time Seafood processes mainly crab meat and sells to a long list of restaurants in Louisiana and out of state, Dartez said.
The announcement on Tuesday comes after Wal-Mart suspended its relationship with Breaux Bridge crawfish processor CJ’s Seafood earlier this month, pending the retailer’s investigation into allegations by a group of Hispanic workers of labor law violations.
Eight H-2b guest workers at CJ’s Seafood also filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The workers allege they were forced to work 24-hour shifts without overtime at CJ’s Seafood, were locked in the processing plant and were threatened, according to the National Guestworker Alliance.