As the U.S. Department of Labor press release explained it, a Whatcom County blueberry grower and his farm labor contractor had admitted to violating child labor and minimum wage laws, and had agreed to pay hefty fines.
But as Marvin Van Mersbergen and Alvaro Vicente tell it, they had little choice. Both men deny that they exploited child labor or shortchanged adult workers. If they had refused to sign the "consent judgment" presented to them by Department of Labor officers, the crop could have rotted in the fields while they contested the accusations and the fines. The Labor Department officers asserted their authority to stop any movement of harvested fruit until the fines were paid.
"We were out of business until we paid the fine," said Van Mersbergen , a blueberry grower. "It's not fair."
Vicente, whose farm labor contracting business paid the same $32,000 fine assessed against Van Mersbergen, agreed.
"We just feel like we were forced to pay the penalty without getting any due process," Vicente said.
As it was, the harvest was interrupted for several days, and 26,000 pounds of already harvested fruit - intended for the fresh market - sat deteriorating for almost a week before the matter could be resolved, Van Mersbergen said.
That also meant lost income to the pickers who were sent home while Van Mersbergen's farm sat in legal limbo.
"The very people they think they are helping, their livelihoods are being taken away," Van Mersbergen said.
Both Van Mersbergen and Vicente acknowledge that there were four kids under the legal minimum age of 12 in the fields when Department of Labor inspectors with badges showed up at the farm on Saturday, July 21. But they deny any intent to exploit anyone, and they dispute the Labor Department's claim that 188 adult workers did not get minimum wage.
As they tell it, two of the four children were there with their families, dropping off some lunch for two teenaged sisters who were working the scales that weigh the berries as workers carry them in from the fields. A third child was the daughter of a foreman who brought the girl to the farm with him without Vicente's knowledge, while the fourth was an 11-year-old whose parents had lied about his age.
"Instead of hearing everything that was going on, they saw one piece of it and made their decision based on that," Vicente said. "The inspectors assumed that the kids who were there were part of the crew, and they weren't. ... It's a tough situation because our name was put out there as if we were exploiting kids. In reality, we were not."
Deanne Amaden, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Labor, said her agency was enforcing a law that has been on the books for decades.
"Our staff found children under the age of 12, working in the fields, period," she said.
The Department of Labor also asserted that 188 of Van Mersbergen's workers did not get the federal minimum wage of $7.25, and they ordered $12,100 in back wages be distributed among them.
Van Mersbergen flatly denies that charge. He contends that all of his hourly workers - equipment operators and so forth - get $9.50 an hour, which is above the Washington state minimum of $9.04. He also contends that nearly all of his pickers should have been able to reach that level, at 26 cents per pound for berries picked.
If any pickers didn't make the minimum, "that was probably five 15-year-old boys who couldn't pick enough pounds," Van Mersbergen said, adding, "If we owe it we are happy to pay it."
Van Mersbergen said he asked the federal inspectors what to do about pickers who did not bring in enough fruit to make minimum wage. He says they told him he could either pay them the extra money to get them up to the minimum, or fire them.
Van Mersbergen says local berry growers are not accustomed to that way of doing business.
"The county has never operated like that before," Van Mersbergen said. "It's always piece work. You work as hard as you want, and you get paid for what you do."
Lesa Starkenburg-Kroontje, Van Mersbergen's attorney, said Department of Labor agents may have been following the letter of the law, but the law appears to have been intended for cases involving non-perishable products.
As she explained it, the law does provide opportunities for employers to contest alleged violations of wage and child labor laws, but due process takes time. When Labor officers invoked the so-called "hot goods" provision of federal law, the feds could have used a court order to block Van Mersbergen from selling his crop, and fighting that battle would have required more time than the crop would allow. That meant Van Mersbergen was effectively out of business until he agreed to pay fines and sign away his right to contest those fines.
Labor Department officials rejected a proposal to put the fine money in escrow, or to allow Van Mersbergen's blueberries to be shipped while the charges against him got a legal review, she added.
As Starkenburg-Kroontje sees it, a farmer with a perishable product has little or no legal recourse in this situation.
"Due process is too cumbersome and long when you're dealing with a perishable commodity," Starkenburg-Kroontje said. "Would we hope that federal officers were more reasonable in a case that involves perishable commodities? We would certainly hope so in this case."
The Labor Department's Amaden said the law doesn't distinguish between different kinds of products, and the federal agency enforces the law the same way for everyone. She said nobody is forced to sign a consent judgment, but she said she could not discuss the specifics of this case.
Henry Bierlink, executive director of Whatcom Farm Friends, said the episode illustrates the legal problems that berry growers face, in an industry that relies on families to pick the ripened fruit.
"We're not trying to run sweatshops here, but we also recognize that there are some positives involved in letting families work together," Bierlink said. "They (parents) are not trying to work their kids into oblivion, and neither is the employer. ... Do you want them (children) home alone? Do you want the parents to be forced to put them in a daycare center? You ask those kinds of questions and it gets a little more complicated."
Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of farmworker advocacy group Community to Community Development, sees the problem from a different vantage point. She thinks underage farm labor is far from rare in Whatcom County, and she argues that child labor would not be an issue if farm workers got better pay.
"It is common knowledge among the farm worker community that children are working in the fields in Whatcom County," Guillen said. "This isn't something new. The family needs the money because the wages are too low ... if child care is available, the parents can't afford it. ... They're not taking their children to the fields because they want to or because they think it's a wonderful thing to do."
She also contended that on several occasions, she has had to complain to Vicente's firm to help some workers get back pay.
Until the 2012 harvest season, some farm worker families could take advantage of a migrant education program operated by the Lynden school district. In 2011, more than 100 children were enrolled in the program and got some academic help while their parents picked berries.
David VanderYacht, principal at Isom Elementary School, had overseen that program, which was available to children of farmworkers across north county school districts.
But for 2012, state grant funding of about $92,000 was cut to about $11,000, VanderYacht said.
That made it impossible for the district to continue an effort that had been offering summer education to migrant youngsters for decades. Instead, the district decided to spend the smaller grant amount helping high-school-age migrant students complete the final credits they needed for their high school diplomas.
VanderYacht hopes state and local educators can find a way to get a broader summer program back up and running.
"We see 8-year-olds that are just as smart as anyone else, but their schooling experience is so disrupted," VanderYacht said.
Meanwhile, Van Mersbergen said he's gotten lots of calls of support from people who know him.
"Everybody in the county knows I don't screw my pickers over," he said. ""We're not out there trying to hurt these people, because we need them."