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Breaking the Law
12 October 2015


An inspector with the U.S. Department of Labor will be visiting Kona coffee farms this month.  It's not a secret, the inspector told us about the visit ahead of time.  Well, he didn't tell Kona Earth, he told a different farmer who told the Kona Coffee Council who told all its members.

Kona Earth is a small family farm.  For several years now, Kona Earth has been large enough that hiring an employee or two might make sense but, while a growing business is easily within our grasp, we've decided to keep the business small enough that we can do everything ourselves.  If Kona Earth had employees then I would spend less time farming and more time dealing with wage laws, health insurance, unemployment insurance, workman's comp, immigration, payroll costs and a dizzying array of other rules and regulations.

Rules Even just the list of required signage can be overwhelming.  For example, my wife and kids are smart enough to not light diesel fuel on fire (though sometimes I'm not) but if I had employees then I would need signs explaining that diesel fuel is flammable.

In addition to all the bureaucracy I would also have to expect visits from government inspectors.  This current inspector is with the wages division which means he'll be checking for compliance with minimum wage and overtime laws.

The going rate for coffee pickers in Kona is approximately $20 per hour.  That's nearly three times the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.  I'll happily pay that amount to anybody, as long as they can keep up.  Believe me, the work isn't as easy as it seems and it's difficult to find people that can keep up.  When I find good pickers I try to take good care of them so they'll come back again next year.

With such a high pay rate you'd think coffee farms would have no problem with the USDL inspector.  The thing is, we pay by the pound rather than by the hour.  That's great for the pickers because it gives them the flexibility to come and go as they please.  I don't care if they leave for lunch or to pick up their kids from school.  Paying by the pound rather than by the hour is the fairest way to do it.

The problem is that the federal inspector doesn't care what the pickers are being paid, he only cares about what paperwork we keep.  In addition to pounds picked he wants us to track hours worked so we can prove that we paid at least minimum wage and didn't need to pay overtime.  So now, instead of just letting the pickers do their work, I'm supposed to spend all day in the field with them to monitor when they come and go and when they sit down for a few minutes to take a break.  It seems to me that paying by the hour would make things worse for the work crews, not better.

Angels
Step 1:  Make coffee angels.
Raking
Step 2:  Rake the coffee.
Working
Step 3:  Repeat while laughing.
While this inspector is officially only checking for timesheets, he has also expressed concern that children are not allowed in the fields.  It doesn't matter if the kids are playing, if he sees them in the field he assumes that they are working.  I asked him what he suggests we do if pickers show up with their kids.  He said that we should offer day care services.  So now I have to monitor everyone's hours AND take care of their kids.

This is where I've decided to break the law.  I need pickers.  I need happy pickers that will keep coming back.  I'm already paying triple minimum wage and I still can't find enough good pickers.  I don't dare mess with the immigration department so I have to stick with legal U.S. workers.  If I refuse to hire any women with kids that causes problems with other laws.  Besides, the women are often the best pickers.

At the risk of breaking the law, here's a picture of some kids "working" on our farm.  Although nobody but a federal inspector would call this working.  Laughing, running and playing is a more accurate description.

Raking the coffee usually takes about two minutes but these kids are such dedicated workers that they were at it for a good half hour.  Then they ran off to go chase the dog around the yard.  After that, they spent some time with our daughter, "working" in the garden and offering daycare services for the baby chickens.

As anybody with kids knows, if the parent is doing something, the kids want to do it too.  I've watched the pickers' kids cry and scream until they got their own picking bucket.  It doesn't matter that ten seconds later the bucket will be sitting on the ground forgotten, that's still officially illegal child labor.

Any sane person recognizes that laws don't always make perfect sense in every situation.  In this case, I'm going to let my common sense override irrational fear of the law.  Letting parents bring their kids to the farm simply makes sense.  Not once have I seen a kid picking coffee when they didn't want to.  What I do see is the kids spending time with their parents.  As far as I'm concerned, that's much healthier than sticking a child in daycare or making the mother sit at home unemployed.

Emily



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