Republican candidate for governor Adam Putnam’s family citrus business in Polk County was cited a decade ago by the U.S. government for workplace violations, including failing to pay fruit pickers the minimum wage.
U.S. Department of Labor records show that Putnam Groves of Bartow was ordered to pay back wages of $1,634.72 to four workers who were paid less than the minimum wage in 2008, which was $6.79 an hour at the time.
Records indicate the company was assessed a civil penalty of $250 for not disclosing employment conditions to workers and not keeping employer records, according to a federal compliance report.
Putnam’s campaign said Thursday that the $250 penalty was dismissed, and released a letter dated April 8, 2008, that said: “No penalties are being assessed as a result of this investigation.”
The Times/Herald obtained records of the violations from the U.S. Department of Labor under the federal government’s Freedom of Information Act, which allows for the access of public documents.
Putnam, 43, has been the elected state agriculture commissioner since 2011 and is a leading Republican candidate for governor.
In a statement Thursday, Putnam’s campaign spokeswoman, Amanda Bevis, said: “As with any business, nothing is more important than its people. After a thorough review of the books, the federal auditors fined the business $250, which was dismissed as soon as the issue was resolved.”
A Labor Department spokeswoman, however, said the $250 penalty was indeed assessed.
As a candidate, Putnam talks often about his deep Florida roots, his appreciation for hard work and his family’s citrus and cattle operations in Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties, including more than 800 acres of Polk orange groves that date back a century.
“I’m a fifth-generation Floridian,” Putnam told a crowd of several hundred in a stump speech at Gateway College in Lake City last fall, two months after Hurricane Irma severely damaged Florida crops. “Grew up in the citrus and cattle business. Still in the citrus and cattle business — and what’s left of our citrus business after old Irma put half of our fruit on the ground.”
On Putnam’s most recent financial disclosure form, filed last June, he listed his 20 percent stake in Putnam Groves as worth nearly $3 million, his largest financial asset. He reported a net worth of $8.7 million.
Putnam reported $8,160 in income from Putnam Groves on his 2017 disclosure form. In the three previous years, he reported incomes of $219,367; $301,192; and $362,070. He also earns about $126,000 a year as commissioner of agriculture.
At the time of the workplace violations, Putnam was in Congress and was chairman of the U.S. House Republican Conference, the third highest-ranking position in his party on Capitol Hill.
A wage and hour investigator from the Labor Department’s Tampa office checked Putnam Groves’ operations under the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act in early 2008, where the Putnams employed a farm labor contractor, who was not fully identified in the report. The groves employed more than 50 people at the time.
“Violations were found during the course of the investigation,” the report states.
Three workers were not paid the minimum wage, which was $6.79 an hour at the time, and a fourth worker, described in the report as having a mental disability, “works the same hours … but only gets paid for one or two hours a day because [he] is not picking constantly like everyone else.”
The report said a crew leader, identified as “Mr. Stendifer,” also automatically deducted an hour a day for lunch from the affected workers “when they worked a full day regardless if the employees were taking their lunch break.”
In addition, the report said, a crew leader failed to include an additional 2.5 hours per week for migrant and seasonal workers who waited to pick more oranges while Putnam Groves’ packing equipment was being moved from one grove to another.
The report concluded: “A total of $1,634.72 is due in back wages to four employees,” and “[employer] agreed to pay all back wages and future compliance.”
The Department of Labor completed its investigation with a conference at Putnam Groves on March 12, 2008, with Putnam’s brother Will Putnam, a vice president of Putnam Groves. Will Putnam died in 2016.
The report, heavily redacted under federal law, omits many details, such as the exact dates of the violations and names, citizenship status and ages of workers, other than that all were at least 18 years old.
The state has no enforcement power over minimum wage laws. A spokeswoman for the Department of Economic Opportunity said any wage-related complaints are referred to the federal government.
As a member of Congress in 2007, Putnam voted against a bill to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 over a two-year period. He was one of 82 House Republicans who broke ranks with President George W. Bush and voted against the bill, according to news accounts at the time.
A nationwide advocacy group for farm workers said the violations cited at Putnam Groves are not unusual.
“There are very high rates of violations of farm workers’ rights in agriculture,” said Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice in Washington. “That is borne out by our understanding and experience in working with groups all over the United States.”