Sunday, December 4, 2011

Rural farmworkers win big with $915,000 settlement

Imagine spending 10 hours a day working in a vineyard and only receiving $20 at the end of that long day. Many farmworkers encountered similar labor practices while working for H&R Gunlund Ranches (Gunlund). Gunlund is in Caruthers, a small town with 2,497 residents located near Fresno, California. Such low wages are shocking, especially in California where the minimum wage is $8. Thankfully, many of the farmworkers who received these wages will soon be receiving a handsome check.

According to a press release from the legal non-profit California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. (CRLA), on November 23, 2011 Judge O'Neill of the Eastern District of California approved a settlement between 82 farmworkers and Gunlund in the Regino Primitivo Gomez et al. v. H&R Gunlund Ranches case. The plaintiffs received $915,000 in the settlement. CRLA as well as a private workers' rights law firm, Talamantes/Villegas/Carrera, LLP (Talamentes), represented the farmworkers.

According to the Associated Press, the farmworkers had numerous complaints. They accused Gunlund of not paying minimum wages and overtime, violating laws relating to meal and rest periods, and not providing proper equipment for work in the vineyards. According to an article in the Fresno Bee, the workers received "piece rate" wages. Gunlund paid the workers for the amount of vines they tied and pruned, the "piece rate", not for the number of hours they worked. The Fair Labor Standards Act requires covered employers, which includes large farms, to pay employees the minimum wage for hours worked. CRLA attorney Felicia Espinosa said Gunlund paid some workers less than $2 an hour.

While this is a grand victory, not all of the money is going to the workers. According to the Fresno Bee, both sides agreed that $490,000 of the settlement would go to the workers. The remaining $425,000 is going towards attorneys' fees. The amount each worker will receive will depend on how many hours the employee worked for Gunlund. Some workers were employees of Gunlund for many seasons, while others just for a few weeks.

The attorneys will be receiving roughly 46% of the settlement, which at first glance may seem excessive, but it is in line with California law. California Labor Code Section 1194 allows successful plaintiffs in minimum wage and overtime cases to recover attorneys' fees and the cost of the suit. Thus, if the plaintiffs had prevailed at trial, in addition to what they deserved to receive from Gunlund, they would also receive attorneys' fees and costs. The amount the attorneys will receive left some people who commented on the Fresno Bee article angry. The attorneys' fees, however, do not detract from the amount the workers should receive based on their claims. The fees are just a bonus that the law provides, most likely to ensure exploited workers can afford legal representation.

The case lasted two years and required two law firms, one of which is looking at funding reductions. Assuming the firms split the attorneys' fees evenly, each organization will receive $106,250 per year of work. For a cash-strapped legal aid organization like CRLA, this is a blessing. Congress decided to cut funding for the Legal Services Corporation by 14.8% for Fiscal Year 2012. LSC will see a total loss of $56 million. LSC helps to fund CRLA, and thus CRLA will likely lose significant funding. Talamantes' mission is to serve employees of whom employers take advantage. This settlement will give the firm more resources and enable them to serve more clients. To survive and continue to serve vulnerable populations in rural communities where attorneys are lacking, CRLA and Talamantes need these attorneys' fees.

In this case, the justice system worked to protect disadvantaged farmworkers. Lawyer Mark Talamantes analogized the case to David and Goliath, and lawyer Felicia Espinosa said "we finally have justice for these workers." As importantly, now many California farmworkers likely have greater confidence in our legal system. Plaintiff Ignacio Hernandez stated:
Being a farmworker is hard, back-breaking work. Underpaying us was unjust and wrong. Many farmworkers would be too scared to come forward, but I knew that this country has laws that protect workers.
Gunlund is not the only agricultural company to take unfair advantage of farm labor. In 2006, CRLA secured recoveries totaling more than $1 million for dairy workers whom their employers forced to work for 12-14 hours a day, 7 days a week, for less than $4.35 an hour. Felicia Espinosa said these practices are also "not uncommon."

While exploitation of labor is not restricted to any geographic area, it seems that agricultural workers are particularly susceptible to unfair labor practices. Employers and employees in agricultural settings are spatially isolated from metropolitan areas where more people might be able to witness the maltreatment of workers. With few people, including attorneys, in areas like Caruthers, it is not surprising that employers believe they can get away with such practices. As this case demonstrates, it is possible to use the law to stop unfair labor practices in rural areas as long as employees demand their rights and accessible attorneys are ready to help.

The farmworkers' battle is not over yet. Some of the workers have filed complaints against Gunlund with the Agricultural Labor Relations Board for unfair labor practices. Many workers claim that Gunlund fired them after they challenged their wages and asked for a raise. The settlement will not affect the complaints and a hearing date has not been set. I hope that these workers will receive a similar result in their future hearing.

1 comment:

KevinN said...

I think you bring up a good point that employers in rural places might have an easier time getting away with paying less than minimum wage because of their relative safety in being spatially removed from large population centers. I wonder if they would be as willing to violate the minimum wage laws if there was some sort of affirmative program that had government officials traveling to ranches and farms to check for labor code violations rather than responding to complaints by workers. Such a program would surely be expensive, but it might help prevent many of these issues from arising in the first place. Further, I'm sure that there are people who have been paid below minimum wage because they were unaware of their rights or afraid to exercise them. If there was someone in a position of authority whose job it was to check up on them periodically, that might not be an issue.