Farm-labor contractor penalized over low wages

After paying $6.50 an hour to 125 nursery workers, a Philadelphia-based farm-labor contractor has been ordered to pay $146,100 in civil penalties for back wages and other federal violations.

The U.S. Department of Labor in September 2014 sued Heng Heng Agency Inc. and its president, Visith Oum, for what it said were repeated and willful violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act.

From December 2010 to December 2012, 125 workers were hired for temporary work cultivating and harvesting plants at Medford Nursery Inc. in Lumberton, Burlington County. Those workers were paid $6.50 an hour, the Labor Department said. The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 since 2009. (Under state law, New Jersey separately sets its current minimum wage rate at $8.38 an hour.)

As a joint employer, Medford Nursery was also responsible for the violations, the Labor Department said, and that company paid $36,505 in back wages in September 2013.

Investigators from the Labor Department also found other labor law violations at Heng Heng, the department said, including failure to maintain proper records, obtain required insurance coverage, and provide safe transportation vehicles.

"Visith Oum . . . has a history of labor law violations and employs vulnerable South Asian and Hispanic workers in the Philadelphia area, who are transported to various farms and nurseries," Charlene Rachor, director of the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division's regional office, said in a September 2014 news release.

Oum, whose Heng Heng company was also cited for minimum-wage violations in 2012, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Oum did not respond to court orders, leading to the default judgment. An administrative law judge with the Labor Department ordered Oum and Heng Heng to pay the $146,100 in civil penalties. He has until April 19 to appeal.

"Employers do not have the right to shortchange temporary workers simply because they are not permanent employees," Rachor said in the announcement Tuesday of the default judgment in the Labor Department's favor.

In the 2012 case, Oum was accused of paying $6.50 an hour to workers contracted to Frank Donio Inc., a Hammonton produce packer and distributor. Donio said he had paid Heng Heng $9 an hour for the workers. He paid $650,000 in back wages to 500 workers to settle a Labor Department complaint, then sued to recover the money from Heng Heng and Oum.

A federal judge awarded Donio the money in a default judgment, and the case was terminated after neither Oum nor representatives for Heng Heng showed up in court.


jlai@phillynews.com

856-779-3220 @elaijuh

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