A private firefighting company in northeastern Oregon will have to pay $180,000 following a U.S. Department of Labor investigation.
KL Farms, also known as Fire LLC, allegedly paid its firefighters and truck drivers a flat rate between $200 and $250 a day to fight wildfires in 2020 and 2021, regardless of frequent overtime. The agency said workers clocked an average of 70 hours a week.
The Summerville company will pay $152,0000 in overtime wages and fringe benefits to 57 firefighters and staff, as well as another $28,000 in damages and fines to the workers and to the U.S. government, the federal agency said in a recent statement.
The agency said that KL Farms wrongly classified the workers as independent contractors. The company provides firefighters, engines, trucks and driver services to help fight wildfires in four western states. It contracts with the U.S. Forest Service.
Heidi Gordon, of KL Farms, said in a statement that they are making additional payments. Gordon said much of the issue stemmed from the company inadequately documenting how its daily rate was structured, but said the company would make changes to make sure it’s compliant.
“Since this time, we have worked to ensure other companies know and understand the rules as explained by the DOL to us,” Gordon said in a statement.
Investigators use a multi-prong test to determine whether contractors actually qualify as employees, said Carrie Aguilar, director of the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division in Portland.
“We found in this case that they were not independent contractors, they were actually employees,” Aguilar said. “So as employees, they are guaranteed the rights of employees under different laws that we’re enforcing.”
KL Farms’ employment methods reportedly violated multiple regulations. One regulation demands that contractors pay workers a set hourly wage plus benefits and holiday pay. Another demands overtime pay once a worker clocks more than 40 hours in a week.
“Having employees that are misclassified as independent contractors, sometimes employers think they can be off the hook for all these requirements,” Aguilar said. “But it really comes down to the fact that if an employment relationship exists, then employers are responsible.”
Aguilar said she’s couldn’t legally say how or why the agency started its investigation. Some investigations stem from complaints, others are started internally.
But Aguilar did say that wage issues are part of a growing trend in the private firefighting business. It’s similar to forestry, she said, which struggles with these issues.
“Fighting wildfires demands people work long hours and face real dangers as they try to save other people, homes, businesses and natural resources,” Aguilar said. “The workers accepted these risks and deserve to be paid every dollar and fringe benefit they’ve earned.”
The firefighters receiving backpay will get checks ranging from $101 to $14,000.