MADISON — Backyard Farms in Madison must pay $337,000 in back wages and penalties after an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor showed the company failed to comply with federal laws governing wages and working conditions for 117 employees.

Investigators found Backyard Farms LLC violated labor provisions of the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Visa Program and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, according to federal Labor Department.

The H-2A program allows agricultural employers who are anticipating a shortage of domestic workers to bring nonimmigrant foreign workers to the United States to fill jobs on a temporary or seasonal basis. The Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act protects these workers.

In addition to the back wages totaling $245,351, Backyard Farms has paid $92,114 in civil penalties for its violations, according to federal officials.

The investigation began in July 2019, according to Edmund Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the Labor Department. And while the Wage and Hour Division does not specify what prompts investigations, they can be the result of a complaint or issues revealed during routine inspections, according to sources.

Information from the Labor Department shows investigators determined Backyard Farms violated the H-2A program requirements by dismissing domestic workers employed through temporary agencies to make room for incoming foreign workers.

The grower also paid workers in corresponding employment lower wages than it paid H-2A workers performing the same work, which is prohibited by law.

“Additionally, Backyard Farms failed to offer employment to U.S. workers who worked in the same occupation the previous year, instead giving those positions to guest workers,” according to the Labor Department.

Federal investigators also said Backyard Farms did not provide employees with copies of their work contracts, another violation of the law.

The company also contracted with three temporary help agencies that were not farm labor contractors registered to perform designated activities, a violation of the Migrant and Seasonal Worker Protection Act.

Attempts to reach representatives of Backyard Farms were unsuccessful Tuesday.

“The U.S. Department of Labor continues to enforce the requirements of agricultural guest worker program to ensure employers do not terminate or fail to offer jobs to U.S. workers in favor of foreign workers, and do not pay any workers in corresponding employment less than their hard-earned wages,” said Daniel Cronin, district director of the federal Wage and Hour Division in Manchester, New Hampshire.

“In this case, Backyard Farms dismissed some U.S. workers and paid other workers lower wages than foreign workers for the same work. Employers that violate the requirements of the H-2A program can be assessed back wages and substantial penalties and may be barred from participating in the H-2A program for up to 3 years.”

Backyard Farms has not been barred from participating in the H-2A program, according to Fitzgerald.

The investigation was conducted by the Northern New England District Office in Manchester, New Hampshire. A Freedom of Information Act request for the investigation report has been submitted.

The Morning Sentinel reported in 2017 that Backyard Farms was founded in 2007 and bought by Mastronardi Produce Ltd. of Kingsville, Ontario, in 2017. The business at 131 River Road in Madison operates on 42 acres, with two large greenhouses.

Mastronardi Produce packs its specialty and commodity non-GMO greenhouse produce under the SUNSET brand.

Founded in the 1940s, Mastronardi Produce sources, grows, packages and distributes more than 50 varieties of non-GMO tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and other product throughout the year and across the country.

In Madison, Backyard Farms’ greenhouses utilize hydroponics, meaning plants are grown in a water solution stocked with nutrients.

The business grows a variety of tomatoes, including beefsteak, cocktail and tomatoes on the vine, which are shipped to many stores, including Hannaford, Shaw’s, Walmart and Whole Foods.

Portland Press Herald reporter Peter McGuire contributed to this report.

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