Federal wage and hour inspectors will be allowed access to Blue Mountain Farms' blueberry fields near Burbank, Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson ruled Friday.
However, she stopped short of ordering the farm to allow inspectors into its packing sheds without a warrant.
The U.S. Department of Labor sued Blue Mountain Farms and its packing operation after inspectors were denied access in July.
Inspectors spent about two hours interviewing Blue Mountain workers in a surprise visit before the work day ended July 23. When they returned to conduct more interviews July 24, the farm's owners ordered them off the property and threatened to call the sheriff.
The Department of Labor argued in court that the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act gives investigators the power to inspect farms without interference. The farm's owners countered that a warrant is required under the Fourth Amendment.
However, the judge found that an open field falls outside the protection of the Fourth Amendment, and interviews of workers while they are in the field are necessary to ensure that payment records kept by farmers accurately reflect the work that is being done on their farms.
The interviews should be done with only minimal impact on the efficiency of the harvest, Malouf Peterson said in a court order.
Interviews already done could have been tainted by the presence of supervisors and video cameras, and in the future Blue Mountain farms will not be allowed to record interviews with workers or send supervisors to observe the interviews, she said.
The Department of Labor also had asked that the farm be required to give workers documents in English and Spanish with information about their rights.
The judge did not find evidence that was needed, but said the Department of Labor could issue its own notices to workers.
The ruling did not cover access to the packing sheds, where the farm owners are covered by some Fourth Amendment rights, Malouf Peterson said.
Malouf Peterson's ruling was on a preliminary injunction to settle what access investigators would have immediately and does not determine the outcome of the case, which could proceed to a jury trial.
The Department of Labor has alleged that in about two hours of interviews July 24 it found apparent minimum wage and overtime violations at the farm and packing house.
It declared the blueberries "hot goods" and asked Blue Mountain voluntarily not to ship them.
Blue Mountain said in court documents that the Department of Labor gave it no specifics on what the farm may have done to violate the minimum wage or overtime laws.
Blue Mountain initially agreed to allow federal inspectors to conduct 15 interviews in the blueberry fields and seven in the packing sheds June 23, although the Department of Labor said the owners' permission was not needed.
Blue Mountain owners were concerned that the investigation would interfere with the harvest, according to court documents.
The inspectors need access to workers in the fields to conduct time studies to ensure workers are receiving sufficient pay, the Department of Labor argued in court documents.
Wages for working on blueberry crops typically are paid on a piece rate basis, with each worker submitting a ticket with the quantity of fruit picked, according to court documents. However, the wages still need to at least equal what workers would be paid hourly at minimum wage, so employers also need to record hours worked.
-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; firstname.lastname@example.org