California mushroom workers forced to live in moldy, insect-ridden conditions, DOL says

Dive Brief:

  • Workers at two mushroom farms in Half Moon Bay, California — California Terra Garden, Inc. and Concord Farms, Inc. — were underpaid and provided unsafe housing conditions, the U.S. Department of Labor concluded after an investigation
  • As part of an investigation opened after a disgruntled worker fatally shot seven co-workers at the two sites in January 2023, the DOL found migrant workers living in “cramped cargo containers, garages and dilapidated trailers” at one site and in “moldy, makeshift rooms in a greenhouse infested with insects” at the other. The DOL also recovered more than $450,000 in back wages and damages for the 62 workers.
  • The living conditions and wage theft violated the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act , DOL alleged. “The Department of Labor is determined to hold employers accountable when they ignore their legal responsibilities to provide suitable housing when required and pay workers all their legally earned wages for the hard work they do in difficult conditions,” Alberto Raymond, DOL Wage and Hour Division assistant district director, said in a press release.

Dive Insight:

The MSPA seeks to protect migrant and seasonal agricultural workers by establishing employment standards related to wages, housing, transportation, disclosures and recordkeeping. 

The law obligates those who employ agricultural workers to pay wages owed when due. According to DOL, the owner of Concord Farms shortchanged workers, including by not paying overtime or for off-the-clock work. As part of its settlement with the DOL, the business agreed to pay $370,107 in overtime wages and liquidated damages to 10 workers and $2,242 in late wages to 23 workers, as well as $29,049 in associated civil penalties. 

Two miles down the road at California Terra Garden, investigators found that the owner and his wife illegally deducted money from workers’ pay for the substandard housing. The business agreed to pay 39 workers $84,074 to recoup wages lost to these deductions.  

The MSPA further requires that worker housing generally be certified by health authorities in compliance with federal and state safety and health standards. The farm workers at Concord and Terra Garden were exposed to “sickening conditions,” Raymond said, including being “forced to sleep near garbage and with insects all around.” Terra Garden will pay $42,494 in civil penalties, part of which will be used to resolve housing violations. 

The Half Moon Bay farms gained international attention in January 2023, when a 66-year-old farmworker fatally shot four co-workers at Terra Garden and then three more at Concord Farms, where he was previously employed. The shooter said in a courthouse interview that he was bullied and worked long hours at the farm and that his complaints were ignored, according to local reporting at the time. The shooting appeared to be spurred by a $100 repair bill his supervisor demanded he pay.

The shooter is a Chinese citizen who said he had a green card; five of the seven killed in the shooting were also Chinese citizens, China’s consulate in San Francisco confirmed shortly after the events. 

DOL’s settlement is not the first legal action for the Half Moon Bay farms. In April, a surviving farmworker and the family of one of the victims, the farmworker’s brother, filed lawsuits against Terra Garden and its owner for negligence and wrongful death. 

Additionally, several months after the shootings, in June 2023, California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health cited Terra Garden for a wide range of California labor code violations, including failure to obtain valid labor camp permits, failure to ensure emergency exits were readily accessible and failure to identify and evaluate workplace hazards, including employee threats.

DOL considers agriculture a “low wage, high violation” industry, along with others like healthcare, auto repair, food services, retail and construction. In fiscal year 2023, the agency obtained more than $6.8 million in back wages for more than 7,300 agricultural workers and assessed employers more than $6.6 million in civil penalties.

Concord Farms did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A company apparently affiliated with California Terra Garden declined to immediately provide a comment.