James Eli Shiffer, the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor, digs into data and documents to uncover the news. Reach him at 612-673-4116, james.shiffer@startribune.com or follow him on Twitter at @jameselishiffer. Tell us what to investigate. Send your story tips to whistleblower@startribune.com.

Company that short-changed workers barred from federal contracts

Posted by: James Eli Shiffer Updated: April 30, 2014 - 12:06 PM

It's a list that no government contractor wants to be on: The roster of companies and individuals barred from federal money because they broke the rules. Last month, a new company joined that list after an incident nearly seven years ago in the woods of northern Minnesota.

Garcia Forest Service LLC, a family-owned business based in Rockingham, North Carolina, got a contract from the U.S. Forest Service for brush clearing and tree planting near Tofte, in Superior National Forest. To do the work, the company brought in immigrant workers under the H2-B visa program. Those visas allow companies to import "temporary non-agricultural workers" when "there are not enough U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified, and available to do the temporary work," according to the U.S. Department of Labor. They contract required workers to be paid $10.98 per hour for clearing brush, and $9.14 for planting seedlings.

Garcia Forest Service had gotten in trouble with the Labor Department before - after it stiffed workers on holiday pay on three federal contracts, the company had been warned in March 2007 that it could lose eligibility for federal money. Perhaps that's why two investigators traveled a few weeks later to the North Woods site to check whether workers were getting what they legally earned.

The investigators found that the company had enlisted one group of workers in a pay system that was supposed to encourage them to work more productively. But the payroll records reflected "wildly inconsistent hours of work" that resulted in minimum wage violations, failure to pay required fringe benefits, overtime and holiday pay, an administrative law judge in Virginia ruled.

The company cooperated with the department and paid 12 workers $27,489 in back wages. Last month, the administrative law judge determined that Garcia Forest Service should be "debarred" from federal contracts for three years.

I've got a call in to Samuel Garcia, the owner of Garcia Forest Service. The situation leaves me with a few big questions, which Labor Department spokesman Scott Allen is working on:

How much was the U.S. Forest Service contract worth?

Why did it take nearly seven years for the company to get debarred?

Did it get any federal contracts in the meantime?

I'll update this blog when I get those answers. Meanwhile, you can download the entire list of debarred federal contractors here.

Photo of Superior National Forest (U.S. Forest Service)

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