Regulation

'Power Drunk' Agency Targets Local Winery

California's Department of Industrial Relations slapped the owners of the Westover Winery with more than $115,000 in fines and assessments for using volunteer workers.

|

SACRAMENTO — Last fall, my wife and I spent a Sunday afternoon at a small winery in the Sierra foothills picking grapes and crushing them in some contraption — followed by a picnic and wine drinking. It was lovely, but unbeknownst to us, state officials apparently believe that we and our fellow volunteer grape-pickers were being exploited.

In a story reported widely in northern California last month, agents from the Department of Industrial Relations showed up unannounced at the tiny Westover Winery, in Castro Valley, and slapped its owners with more than $115,000 in fines and assessments for using volunteer workers.

Westover is a typical hobby winery. A big winery no doubt spills more than this East Bay winery produces. Its annual profits are $11,000. Owner Bill Smyth told me he is financially well off and is doing this for fun, so he's decided to shut down rather than face the not-so-fun prospect of fighting the state.

"The public policy of the state, as expressed in the California Labor Code, is to vigorously enforce minimum labor standards so that employees are not required to work under substandard conditions and to protect law-abiding employers from unfair competition by others don't comply with minimum standards," according to a statement from the Brown administration.

I talked to three of Westover's former volunteers. Volunteers typically are well-heeled retirees with plenty of health insurance. "I have so much fun out here, I should actually have to pay Bill," said Ken Tatum, a retired superintendent at the San Francisco shipyards. He told the story of a friend of his from the San Diego area who flies up to the winery to volunteer.

Most of the volunteers started out in a wine class and then moved on to hands-on learning. "I had a hobby interest in the whole wine culture," said Mark Landes. A retired police officer, he was shocked by the heavy-handedness of the state inspection. The use of volunteers, he said, is ubiquitous: "This is how the wine business is run, with small wineries."

In response to the raid, the Wine Institute, a San Francisco-based trade group, sent an advisory to vintners regarding the proper use of volunteers. "Generally, for-profit companies should avoid the use of volunteers," wrote general counsel Wendell Lee.

Volunteers are mainly allowed for "public service, religious or other charitable organizations" and only in limited situations. My wife and I were part of a church group, so I guess our volunteering passed complex regulatory muster. While it's mostly illegal for any of us to volunteer at wineries, it is perfectly legal, Lee explained, for us to "pay for the experience of working at a winery, but these seminars must be monitored closely by an employee."

Lee told me he heard Westover had "a constant stream of volunteers" and the investigation was sparked by a complaint regarding an injury by a former volunteer. But Smyth, who taught wine-making at a vocational school for free, scoffed at any implication that he was trying to get free labor. "My wife and I can do it by ourselves," he added. "The only reason we used these people was so they can learn."

Almost all wineries use some form of volunteer labor, Smyth added. And he says such situations are happening to businesses everywhere, where people with disputes "go to the government and try to get you in trouble."

The case certainly raises some critical questions. Who exactly is being protected here? How does this benefit our society?

"It puts a functioning business out of business," said Lawrence McQuillan, an economist at the libertarian Independent Institute in nearby Oakland. "The state is depriving people of special training they desperately want in a unique field where it's hard to get anywhere else. It harms the very individuals the state says it is trying to protect."

Smyth gained a sympathetic ear from GOP Assemblyman Brian Jones, who represents Temecula-area wine country, and a Democratic Bay Area legislator. Maybe a bipartisan coalition can loosen rules — or at least require the state to issue a warning before slapping businesses with fines given that state officials said they had no choice but to level the big fines. Otherwise it could dampen one of California's entrepreneurial bright spots.

NEXT: Kim Jong-un Misses Key Event; Authorities Maintain He's in Control

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Classic shakedown. It’s another Sriracha situation.

    My recommendation to Bill Smyth is to get away from the taker scumbags in California and move to a wine-growing state that wants your business.

    1. Oregon has become very popular for vineyards.

    2. Yes, this is just another example of CA becoming increasing hostile to business of any kind.

    3. CA guv’mint hits 10 on the douche scale.

  2. It harms the very individuals the state says it is trying to protect

    That does seem to be a common thread.

    1. “….the state says it is trying to protect….”

      I suspect that the state is being less than truthful.

    2. It harms the very individuals the state says it is trying to protect

      There is no other way it could possibly be. We entrust the protection of life, liberty and property to an agency with a monopoly right to expropriate life, liberty and property. ‘Antithetical’ is the word that comes to mind.

  3. Department of Industrial Relations, which is the department which favors industries owned by relatives.

    1. ^^EXCELLENT!!^^
      Crony capitalism in a nutshell.

  4. Volunteer labor is non-union labor. Therefore some little socialist in CalGov decided to put Westover out of business.

    1. This. If there were a union for volunteers this law would vanish.

  5. He needs to set up an educational course where people pay him, say, $20 and he guides them through wine-making “lab” classes.

    1. From the article:

      While it’s mostly illegal for any of us to volunteer at wineries, it is perfectly legal, Lee explained, for us to “pay for the experience of working at a winery, but these seminars must be monitored closely by an employee.”

      So yeah, it’s possible to do that, but the compliance costs (hiring an employee to monitor the seminars) would still make it unfeasible for Westover. The State got exactly what it wanted.

      1. Why couldn’t the employee be paid out of the fees? It’s called teaching for money.

    2. My local community college now runs a licensed winery, and they do exactly this (I paid for classes and worked in the winery).

    3. I would imagine that “education” is a highly regulated field in Commiefornia and would no doubt require credentials and license fees/

      It’s not like you can just teach someone something they want to learn without State approval.

      1. Yet there are schools, and they make $, so it must be feasible. In fact schools are a racket.

  6. It harms the very individuals the state says it is trying to protect.

    That’s. What. Government. Does. When the lumbering, heartless bureaucracy focuses on people that it is “trying to protect”, the inevitable heartlessness and cruelty and complete lack of care that is endemic in a bureaucracy is focuses on them. The very act of coming to the attention of the bureaucracy is going to fuck you royally. That’s how it works.

  7. Oh noes CA is protecting workers against being exploited! better call Reason and get the libertarian police on the case and make sure those people go back to work for free! i’m sure you all could raise and feed your family’s by not getting paid. this is what happens under capitalism, the wine owners get richer and richer and pay there employees less and less until finally the owners are rich and people end up working for nothing just to try feeding there family. they would like to say that it is experience for your resume but while you are doing it how are you supposed to eat or pay your bills? it gets cold in some parts of CA and i know that being a volunteer isn’t going to keep me warm. or maybe that will make them come to work more because i’m sure the wine owner ain’t cold!

    1. Ah Jesus Christ…are you a fucking retard? The operative word is volunteer…how can a volunteer be exploited? Hobbyist volunteers at that. What does this have to do with feeding your family and the rich getting richer?

      Dumb fuck.

    2. If the volunteers/”exploited workers” can’t afford to work there, what’s stopping them from getting a job somewhere else?

      1. It must be a troll. No one is that stupid.

        1. It is.

          Or just a little sarc.

          Besides, the only people in this country who can offer real benefits worthy of volunteer, or unpaid interns, time is Congresscritters.

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8pFC3LKMIQo

        2. I thought there was no peak derp?

    3. I give up: Is this serious, or are you parodying Tony?

    4. …exploited! better [sic]…
      …free! i’m [sic]…
      …paid. this [sic]…
      … feeding there [sic] family. they[sic]…
      …bills? it [sic]…
      …and i know [sic]…
      …and i know [sic]…
      …because i’m [sic]…

      Please don’t stop. Your contributions to the discussion are invaluable.

  8. Oh noes CA is protecting workers against being exploited!

    “Exploitation” requires an element of involuntary participation.

    1. Oh yeah ‘you can work for me because you want to, not cos you need to pay bills and feed your kids, its totally voluntary.’ nice logic.

      1. You are incredibly dense aren’t you? Or purposely obtuse. Either way you seem to be an annoying fuck stick.

        1. Your the one saying that you have the choice to voluntarily freeze and or starve or voluntarily work for nothing. yeah that’s an awesome choice. i give you an A+ for your logic professor.

          1. Hi Tulpa!

          2. Your the one saying that you have the choice to voluntarily freeze and or starve or voluntarily work for nothing.

            Everyone has those options. You should probably go after the Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity because those organizations are highly reliant on volunteers. I hope you’re aware of what a despicable scumbag you are. Slavers like you are unworthy of life.

          3. Weak trolling. If my options are “volunteering to work for free and starving to death” and “doing nothing and starving to death” I suppose I’d choose the latter and conserve my energy so I’d starve slower. Or you know, use that free time to go find any other job, which granted, in the progressive California paradise, is increasingly difficult.

            1. Go see Government Almighty, and “volunteering” to be a student teacher, where you PAY a university for the PRIVELEGE of working! WORK at teaching the kiddos, and get a NEGATIVE salary, you have to PAY for the privilege of working! If Guv-Mint Almighty owned the wineries, maybe they could get away with the same… “Student Winerers:, we could call them…

              1. In those examples you are LEARNING a SKILL! That is why you pay. Also the government and schools are NONprofit. Big difference. it is a lot difference to learn a skill working for a nonprofit than to be a waiter for some rich winemaker making a profit off of your work.

                But I must be a troll since I only agree with the 99 percent of people who disagree with the 1 percent of libertarians. yeah must be a troll since who could possibly disagree with the people who never win an election like ever! you people are living in a fantasyland

                1. OK, so then make the wineries non-profit or government-owned? For that matter, why not OUTLAW this evil for-profit stuff USA-wide? And ALL of the workers who are not “party to the Party” of the one-party State, can be called those who are “LEARNING a SKILL!”, the “skill” being called, One-Party ball-sucking, so as to stay alive? And THEN we will have YOUR fantasyland paradise, North Korea style! PLEASE go live there, we’d be better off without you and your kind of ideas!!!!

                  1. Oh yeah so I don’t like people being exploited so I might as well just move to north korea. that’s logical. it is either libertarian fantasyland of 1800 where everyone doesn’t have any regulation on there business and can pay below minimum wage, or it’s north korea. Obviously you are not familiar with many euro countries who are more advanced in this area. but to you its just black and white and nothing in between, exploit or be exploited. If that sounds familiar its because you read about it in your history book.

                    1. Hey man? If everyone out there is exploiting the livin’ HELL out of their employees, abusing them and making HUGE profits? In a free society (which I wish we had, but at least it is SOME-what sorta free, still, except in socialistic freak-lands of the Californicators for example?) we can START OUR OWN BUSINESS! If every worker is being so horribly abused, then YOU, Bob Dole’s Blow-Job, can start YOUR business, and pay them MUCH better, and STILL make a profit! Go DO this thing, man, and quit wasting yer time trolling those silly libertardiacs!!!

                2. Winning elections has little to do with being right. In Germany, the two Nazis and one Jew held a 3-voters election to see who should be burned, and the Jew lost, but no good came of it. In middle-ages Europe, they held elections to see whether all of the diseases, dead babies, and bad crop yields were due to the “witches”, and the witches lost. No good came of it. Today, the libertarians lose elections, and no good is going to come from it.

                  1. Yeah but the nazi’s won the vote so you are saying you would like to win the vote and be like the nazi’s? Nice inspiration. Or are you saying that the majority is always wrong? I’m sure you think it is since it always disagrees with you. well sorry, that’s the way the system works and I’m sorry you can’t be the dictator to the rest of us and tell us all what to do. Majority rule is our system. Maybe you read about that in your history books, too. But I’m not certain you can read anyway or apply the things you read because you already said basically I was like a north Korean just because I said you should have to pay workers.

                    Keep smoking whatever your smoking though.

                    1. Getting back, though, Bob Dole’s Viagra? Just curious, do you serve as his Viagra with manual, physical methods, or via chemical methods? If you are doing it via physical methods, massage or otherwise? Are you getting paid the minimum wage? Consider SUING if not, THAT will fix ‘er up! ? Getting back to volunteer labor, I know something about that, and not just from my history books, either. I have volunteered for MANY-MANY YEARS, offering up my masterful artistic skills to beautify many-many bathroom walls? Many-many artistic doodles, I have done on my volunteer time? Sometimes in flowery scripts, sometimes in mystic runes upon the walls? Sometimes composed of my own human excrement, to make some VERY artistic and provocative statements about the decadence of society? And DO YOU KNOW WHAT??!?! Not a DIME have I collected! Not even the barest SNIPPET of the minimum wage, even! WHOM shall I sue? If I can’t get any ENFORCEMENT here, then WTF!?!?! Else these kinds of laws, they are all TOTALLY WORTHLESS!!! Kinda like Bob Dole’s Viagra, after (or even before?) Bob Dole is DEAD!

                    2. Before all you readers out there in Reason-land CLAMOR for the details, threatening to CRASH the Reason web site server, I will now fill you in, on the “Mystic Runes” upon that them thar bathroom walls:

                      Free Samples:

                      Here I sit, my cheek a flexin’,
                      Givin’ birth,
                      To another Texan!

                      He who writes,
                      On bathroom walls,
                      Wraps his shit,
                      In little balls.
                      He who reads
                      These lines of wit,
                      EATS those little balls of (Bob Dole’s Viagra)!

                      She offered her honor,
                      He honored her offer,
                      And all night long,
                      It was honor and offer!

                      The cabin boy, the cabin boy, the dirty little nipper!
                      He lined his ass, with broken glass, and circumcised the skipper!

          4. Ermahgerd, for your sake I hope you are just fucking around.

    2. The only way you can avoid being exploited is to stop thinking and do exactly what you’re told.

      1. Amen, Bro!

        Scienfoology Song? GAWD = Government Almighty’s Wrath Delivers

        Government loves me, This I know,
        For the Government tells me so,
        Little ones to GAWD belong,
        We are weak, but GAWD is strong!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        My Nannies tell me so!

        GAWD does love me, yes indeed,
        Keeps me safe, and gives me feed,
        Shelters me from bad drugs and weed,
        And gives me all that I might need!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        My Nannies tell me so!

        DEA, CIA, KGB,
        Our protectors, they will be,
        FBI, TSA, and FDA,
        With us, astride us, in every way!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        Yes, Guv-Mint loves me!
        My Nannies tell me so!

  9. Oh noes CA is protecting workers against being exploited!

    “Exploitation” requires an element of involuntary participation.

    1. Its probably Mary.

      1. Is that the unhinged cunt who obsessively posts about reason on google plus, or something?

      2. There’s no shortage of illiterate fucksticks out there. Why is anyone paying any attention to it?

  10. The case certainly raises some critical questions. Who exactly is being protected here? How does this benefit our society?

    As my brother the management consultant likes to say, “If you’re sitting at the table when the deal closes, and you’re not sure who’s getting fucked, it’s probably you.”

  11. Didn’t Steve Jobs work for $1 per year? Maybe California should go after Apple next.

    1. Steve Jobs had the money to do that and could afford it, so that is not a good example.

  12. i am surprised that the volunteers (scabs) were not fined

  13. Just make it a not-for-profit, pay yourself a big salary, and then you can exploit all you want and save taxes too.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.