Opinion - A Local View: State's decision unfair to farmers

Monday, February 17, 2003

The Columbian

Matt Erickson works at Erickson Farms in Vancouver and publishes a constitutional studies newsletter, The Beacon of Liberty (www.BeaconofLiberty.org).

A Feb. 5 editorial, "Minimum standards," highlighted a safety inspection and subsequent citations of a "squalid migrant camp" last summer. The camp, owned by Jim and Penny Rodda of Ridgefield, housed farmworkers who worked at the berry farms of George Hoffman, Andy Tran and most likely others during harvest.

State officials have held the two farmers liable for the conditions of the camp and fined them $3,150 each. No fine was levied against Rodda.

The editorial argued against the farmer's appeal of the statutory authority of the state Department of Labor and Industries over employers in this situation. The editorial stated, "To the contrary, state law requires the department to ensure 'safe and healthful working conditions for every man and woman working in the state of Washington.'"

That one could stretch "safe and healthful working conditions" to include housing conditions supplied by third parties, however, would have serious implications in every industry statewide.

The editorial further added that the state administrative code "requires farmworker housing to meet common-sense standards for health and safety." What the editorial does not address is who is responsible for meeting those standards. In fact, the code mandates the camp operator, who is clearly defined as the property owner or he who has possession, lawful control or supervision over the camp.

Most importantly, the L&I citations themselves acknowledged Jim Rodda to be the "camp operator" and stated that "the camp was operated by property owner, Mr. Jim Rodda."

There is no question that the Legislature imposes the burden of conforming the camp to set standards on the camp operator. L&I employees admitted their quandary in e-mails: "Our basic problem is Jim Rodda is the camp operator and each section in the agriculture standard on temporary worker housing starts out with the phrase 'The operator must .' However, in this case Jim Rodda has no employees and is not an employer."

This case is not about shutting down a nonconforming labor camp that was done last summer but about fines. Rodda cannot be fined by L&I, which oversees employer-employee relations, because he has no employees.

The Roddas certainly did not appear to be taking advantage of the farm workers; it is unlikely that the couple even covered their liability exposure when they charged only $3 per person per day. That the workers were not left to camp out in sleeping bags is a testament to the Roddas' desire to provide shelter that the workers could afford.

No statutory authority

Hoffman stated that either the employees themselves (all 150, not just the 45 at this camp) or the labor contractor who brought them to his farm were responsible for finding and paying for living quarters of the employees. Hoffman made a single monetary advance to Rodda for money Hoffman would be paying the labor contractor who would be bringing pickers to his fields. This contractor would be helping to arrange employment and possibly living quarters (thereby being owed money by farmers and owing money to camp operators). Hoffman simply paid Rodda directly, and later subtracted that money from additional payments owed and paid the labor contractor.

In the L&I citation and fine against Hoffman and Tran, state officials substituted the word "employer" in place of "operator" without statutory authority. The employers were made liable for conditions outside their control because the department wanted to impose fines on individuals over whom they had some authority.

Farming, like business everywhere, is feeling pressure from many areas. To attempt to force responsibility upon farmers in areas that all admit to be under the control of third parties is unwarranted. To the extent it occurs is simply an additional nail in the coffin of farming in Clark County.


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