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Watermelon grower drive begins in Oklahoma

Oklahoma watermelon growers are the focus of a new U.S. Department of Labor enforcement effort that's designed to protect farm workers.

The program is the first in a multiyear agriculture education and enforcement initiative. The agency started with watermelon growers because it is a labor-intensive crop, said Natalie Collins, assistant district director of the agency's Wage and Hour Division in Oklahoma.

"The harvest involves a large number of workers out in the field," Collins said. "A lot of them are migrant or seasonal workers under very hot conditions, so field sanitation is important."

Watermelon growers generate about $6 million in sales annually in the state. Depending on the weather, most of the watermelon harvest happens in June, July or August, Collins said.

The Wage and Hour Division has concluded 30 investigations in the agriculture industry in the state since 2011. It also helped recover $130,000 in back wages for more than 200 employees in the state.

Collins said because of the transient nature of the workforce for harvesting crops like watermelon, it can be hard to make sure workers know their rights.

The division also finds many employers aren't aware of the law, including the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act and field sanitation provisions under the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Collins said the division plans several outreach events, including a presence at the annual Rush Springs watermelon festival Aug. 8. The division hopes the educational and technical assistance will increase awareness and compliance.

"We're going to spread the word on worker rights and employer responsibilities," she said.

Collins said future outreach and enforcement efforts will likely focus on other labor-intensive crops such as peaches, strawberries and grapes.

Oklahoma had 187 watermelon farms and 1,486 acres of watermelons harvested in 2012, according to the National Agricultural Statistical Service. The state ranked 16th in the nation for watermelon production. The top four states — Texas, Florida, Georgia and California — grew almost 60 percent of the nation's watermelons in 2012.


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