THU AM News: Cheesemakers roll out policy agenda, call for more state funding; DOL investigation finds forestry companies owe $1.1M in unpaid wages

— The Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association is calling on state lawmakers to boost funding for an ag exports program and grants for dairy processors. 

The organization yesterday released its policy priorities for 2023, which also include food labeling, transportation regulations, broadband expansion and efforts to address the workforce shortage. 

WCMA Executive Director John Umhoefer says policymakers should “champion investments and policies that sustain and grow the state’s signature industry” in the new legislative session. 

“We’re grateful for the widespread bipartisan support legislators have expressed for the issues that matter most to dairy manufacturers, and we look forward to seeing swift action in the coming biennium,” he said in a statement. 

According to the group’s release, lawmakers in the previous budget cycle allocated $400,000 for the state’s Dairy Processor Grant program, which funds business development and innovation efforts. The association is calling for an annual allocation of up to $1 million per year, given that applicants in 2022 sought $1.7 million in total funding. 

WCMA says the additional funding would help support more automation to address labor shortfalls while helping “artisan” cheesemakers in the state to grow and “maintaining Wisconsin’s dominance” in specialty cheeses. 

Meanwhile, the organization is also seeking more funding for the Wisconsin Initiative for Agricultural Exports, a five-year, $5 million effort launched in 2021. WCMA says the initiative’s support is “already moving the needle” on state dairy exports, as sales have risen 37.7 percent in 2022. 

Going forward, the group is proposing a $2 million investment per fiscal year for the program, which would be $4 million over the 2023-25 biennium, according to the release. 

The association is also calling for maintaining funding for the Dairy Innovation Hub, expanding funding for dairy-related positions at DATCP, continued support for a food security initiative, improving broadband internet access in rural areas in particular, changing regulations for transporting certain dairy products and product labeling, and more. 

See the release: 

Listen to an earlier podcast with Umhoefer: 

— The owners of two Wisconsin forestry businesses owe more than $1.1 million in unpaid wages after a federal investigation identified violations of a foreign worker visa program. 

That’s according to a release from the U.S. Department of Labor, which includes details of the investigation into Northwoods Forestry Inc. and A&C Forestry Services LLC. Both companies are located in Eleva, a village in Trempealeau County. 

In a review of H-2B visa program certification contracts from 2016 to 2018, the agency found the companies had improperly classified jobs and employed certain workers “outside the area of intended employment,” the release shows. 

The agency says the employers contracted forestry workers for jobs in Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Wisconsin but “illegally placed” workers in non-forestry occupations in the Eau Claire and Abbotsford areas. These included meat processing, concrete finishing, roofing and landscaping. 

And the companies didn’t pay prevailing wage rates and overtime from the job order while making “illegal deductions” for transportation and safety expenses, the DOL says. 

Northwoods Forestry Inc. and owners Alfredo and Patricia Aguilar owe affected workers about $1.14 million in back wages, as well as $210,696 in civil penalties, according to the release. 

Along with a plea agreement entered in the U.S. District Court in Madison related to the unpaid wages owed, DOL says the owners have also signed an “enhanced compliance agreement” that prevents the companies from participating in the H-2B visa program for five years. 

The owners could not immediately be reached for comment. 

See the DOL release here: 

— The Department of Natural Resources and Department of Health Services have issued PFAS fish consumption advisories in Dane, Marathon and Portage counties.

DNR and DHS are recommending restricting consumption of white bass caught in the Yahara chain of waters to one meal per day after elevated PFOS levels were found in fish caught in Lake Kegonsa. DNR usually recommends limiting white bass intake to one meal per week for all men and women over 50.

The Yahara chain includes Wingra Creek, Starkweather Creek, Lake Monona, Lake Waubesa, Upper and Lower Mud Lake, Lake Kegonsa and the Yahara River downstream to where it meets the Rock River.

DNR also recommends limiting consumption of bluegill, black crappie, rock bass and yellow perch to one meal per week if the fish are caught in Lake Wausau or the Stevens Point Flowage.

The department usually does not have any consumption limits for bluegill, crappie, rock bass or yellow perch.

See the Dane County release:

See the Marathon and Portage County release:

— The health science division of Nestle is investing $43 million into an Eau Claire manufacturing facility, the company announced. 

Nestle Health Science plans to add two new production lines for consumer drinks at the site, according to a release from the Swiss company. The facility currently produces medical nutrition products such as tube feeding formulas, as well as nutritional beverages. 

The company says it will add about 60 jobs in the area in processing, packaging, engineering and other specialties. 

Gaetan Sion, vice president of manufacturing for Nestle Health Science U.S., says the expansion aims to “better meet the needs” of both patients and consumers. 

“Also, as a member of the Eau Claire community since 1987, we’re proud to help strengthen the local economy by generating more job opportunities that offer competitive pay and benefits,” Sion said in the release. 

See more project details: 

<br><b><i>Top headlines from the Health Care Report … </b></i> 

— Flu activity in Wisconsin continues to decline, according to the latest Department of Health Services data. 

And Attorney General Josh Kaul argues in a new court filing that the Sheboygan County DA is wrong to suggest the Dem AG doesn’t have standing to challenge the state’s 174-year-old abortion ban.

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