Nearly two years after ABC News cameras uncovered young children toiling away in Michigan's blueberry fields, federal investigators have found yet another disturbing example of illegal use of child labor in the berry industry.
Three southwest Washington strawberry growers were fined $73,000 last week after the U.S. Department of Labor found children between the ages of six and 11 working in their strawberries fields in June.
While an exemption in the federal child labor law allows 12- and 13-year-olds to work for unlimited hours on large agricultural operations, children under the age of 12 are strictly prohibited from working under similar conditions.
Andrea Schmitt, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services in Olympia, said that the low wages made by workers in the Northwest berry industry are a key factor driving young kids into the fields. She said that berry pickers, who are usually paid a piece rate instead of an hourly wage, often struggle to make the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
"Minimum wage laws are not being followed with the adults who are working in this industry. Across the board, we see people making $5 or fewer an hour," said Andrea Schmitt, who provides legal services to low-income families working in berry picking. "People can't make minimum wage by the piece and so if they have another set of little hands adding to the pile of berries, they might be able to make enough to live on."
Two of the southwest Washington state growers cited with fines – George Hoffman Farms and Berry Good Farms – were found to be in violation of minimum wages laws. The two growers, along with Columbia Fruit LLC, have taken steps to remove the underage workers from their fields and will be required to attend training conducted by the federal government over the next three years, according to a Department of Labor statement.
Representatives for Columbia Fruit LLC and Berry Good Farms did not respond to requests for comment. George Hoffman declined to comment, referring ABC News to his attorney who was unavailable.
To force the companies into compliance, the Department of Labor invoked an infrequently-used enforcement tool called the "hot goods" provision which prevents farmers from shipping produce harvested in violation with child labor laws.
"Agricultural employers must understand that the Labor Department will vigorously enforce the federal labor laws, especially when it comes to protecting vulnerable workers such as children," said Jeffrey Genkos, director of the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour division office in Portland, Oregon, in a statement. "Agricultural employment is particularly dangerous for children, and the rules for their employment must be followed."
Schmitt said that harvesting low-growing strawberry plants can be arduous work for children.
"The kind of work that kids are doing on commercial farms, I think, is fundamentally different than the kind of berry-picking people did as kids 50 years ago," said Schmitt. "We're talking about kids who are picking 100 to 200 pounds of berries a day. In strawberries, that's a lot of stooping and standing. They complain to us about backaches -- their backs hurt when they sleep at night -- and we see these horribly bruised knees."