- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 20, 2015

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - The federal government and two Oregon blueberry producers have settled a dispute over allegations farm workers were paid less than the minimum wage.

The dispute dates to 2012, when the U.S. Department of Labor threatened to block the shipment of perishable berries as unlawfully harvested “hot goods” unless the growers agreed to pay $220,000 in back wages and penalties.

The farmers did so, but then turned to the federal courts. A judge blocked the Labor Department, ruling the growers were acting under duress to save their crops. The agency then said it would appeal and sought additional charges.

Under the agreements signed Friday, the farm workers get to keep $73,500 that was distributed as underpayments, the government said. But the farms will get payments nearly equal to what the workers were paid and will also get $30,000 each.

Neither side admitted liability. The settlements noted that the blueberry growers had to bear their own legal fees.

The growers are Pan-American Berry Growers and B&G; Ditchen.

Their lawyer, Tim Bernasek, told the agriculture publication Capital Press (http://bit.ly/1wmk7oK ) they are relieved the dispute has ended and they’re satisfied with the settlement.

“They are very appreciative of the support the industry has given them,” Bernasek said.

Labor Department spokeswoman Tania Mejia issued a statement noting that the workers were allowed to keep their compensation.

Neither the settlements nor the department’s statement addressed the use of the “hot goods” provisions in enforcing wage and hour provisions in agriculture.

But the statement said the agency would continue to use “strong enforcement, using all enforcement tools that Congress has provided to the department to improve compliance, as well as significant outreach to both the employer and employee communities.”

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