Half Moon Bay farms to pay workers $450K in back wages and damages in probe that began after deadly shooting, feds say

Two mushroom farms in Northern California agreed to pay more than $450,000 in back wages and damages for dozens of employees stemming from a federal work- and living-conditions investigation that started after seven people were fatally shot there in 2023, the US Department of Labor said this week.

The investigation into California Terra Gardens and Concord Farms Inc. in Half Moon Bay found the employers underpaid workers and provided unsafe housing conditions with mold and insect infestation, the Labor Department said in a news release Monday.

The back wages and damages are part of administrative settlements the department reached with the two farms for multiple violations of the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act, the department said.

“Our investigators found workers at California Terra Gardens and Concord Farms housed in sickening conditions, forced to sleep near garbage and with insects all around,” Alberto Raymond, the department’s wage and hour division assistant district director, said in the release.

At California Terra Gardens, investigators uncovered that 39 workers were housed in cramped cargo containers, garages and dilapidated trailers, according to the department. They were forced to sleep on filthy mattresses and were exposed to insects and trash, according to the labor department. The farm’s owners deducted money from workers’ pay for the substandard housing illegally, the department determined.

Two miles away, investigators found workers at Concord Farms were housed in moldy, makeshift rooms in a greenhouse infested with insects, the department said. That farm’s owner shortchanged workers by not paying overtime past 40 hours worked in a week, and by not paying for work off the clock, the department said.

The federal investigation started after a shooting in which authorities allege a California Terra Gardens worker, Chunil Zhao, killed seven workers and injured another at the two farms on January 23, 2023. Zhao, a Chinese citizen who was 66 at the time, was arrested that month and pleaded not guilty this year to seven counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder. He is awaiting trial.

Zhao was a coworker or former coworker of the victims, and evidence indicated the attack was an instance of workplace violence in which specific people were targeted, the San Mateo County sheriff said at the time.

A general view of Concord Farms. - Vargas Ortega Family/Handout/Reuters/File
A general view of Concord Farms. - Vargas Ortega Family/Handout/Reuters/File

After the shooting, officials including the state’s governor criticized living conditions on the farms, and state and federal investigations into the conditions were launched. In June, the farms were cited by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health for “serious” health and safety violations.

Following the federal Labor Department investigation, Concord Farms agreed to pay $370,107 in overtime wages and liquidated damages to 10 workers, $4,242 in late wages to 23 workers and $29,049 in civil money penalties, the release said. California Terra Gardens agreed to pay $84,074 to 39 workers for illegal housing deductions and $42,494 in civil money penalties, the department said.

CNN has sought comment from California Terra Gardens and Concord Farms.

“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,” Raymond said. “We are committed to enforcing these workplace protections that ensure a safe and suitable living conditions for seasonal workers.”

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