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California Small Business Shuttered … Simply For Using Volunteers

Image source: Mercury News

Image source: Mercury News

State bureaucracy and big government apparently have put an end to the use of volunteer labor at farms and businesses in California – and shut down a small winery in the process.

The owner of the winery is facing $115,000 in fines because he let unpaid volunteers – people who wanted to learn about wineries by taking classes – work on the farm.

State law bans volunteers from working at for-profit businesses.

The owner was fined for not paying minimum wage, not paying workers’ compensation insurance, and not providing wage statements, The Mercury News reported.

“There’s just no money left; they’ve taken everything,” owner Bill Smyth said of the fines handed down by the California Department of Industrial Relations. “We’re a small winery, open only 10 hours a week. We didn’t really need any helpers; we were just educating people about wine.”

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Smyth allowed people to trade their labor for experience and classes about winemaking. The department contends Smyth violated state law by letting people work and help out without pay. The Westover Winery only grosses around $11,000 a year, so Smyth said he had no choice but to close its doors.

The state’s action upset the volunteers.

“I should be able to volunteer my time,” volunteer Ken Tatum told The Mercury News.

The state disagrees.

“These are not idle things,” Industrial Relations spokesman Peter Melton said. “People should be paid for their labor. The workers’ compensation violations are very serious. What happens if someone has a catastrophic injury at the winery?”

Some of Smyth’s supporters asked: Couldn’t the state simply have issued a warning? Melton told The Mercury News that state law prevents his department from issuing warnings.

Education Now Illegal?

A number of other small wineries have stopped using volunteers. It was common for wineries to use volunteer labor until 2013, when the state started cracking down and industry groups started warning wineries to stop the practice.

“I didn’t know it was illegal to use volunteers at a winery; it’s a common practice,” Smyth said.

Most of the volunteers were people like Peter Goodwin who were learning about winemaking. The home winemaker was working at Westover to gain the knowledge necessary to someday open his own winery.

“This was an incredible opportunity for me,” Goodwin told the newspaper. “I got to learn from someone who knows the business.”

He was able to do a variety of chores.

“That’s what I wanted, to be as involved as much as possible — it was all about learning,” Goodwin said. “I don’t understand the state’s action. It was my time, and I volunteered.”

Wendell Lee, an attorney and vice president with the Wine Foundation, is urging wineries to stop using volunteers.

Other kinds of farms, including small organic farms, could be affected by the volunteer labor ban. For instance, can people participate in the harvest in exchange for some of the crops? Can people gather unpicked fruit or vegetables after the harvest – a traditional practice called gleaning that goes back to biblical times?

Supporters say Californians and others will be losing some incredible educational opportunities.

Non-profit organizations such as the Institute for Justice can help farmers and others with legal representation and advice if bureaucrats go after them.

Who was right here – the state of California or the winery owner? Leave your reply in the section below.

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