SPOKANE — The area’s largest fruit producer will pay $3 million in a settlement with more than 10,000 visiting agricultural workers to reimburse three years of unpaid wages.
The agreement hashed out in federal court is 25 times the amount the H-2A workers would have received under a settlement proposed last year. The plaintiffs claimed Stemilt Ag Services, which hires field workers for Stemilt Growers orchard operations throughout Washington, deprived them of pay they should have received for labor outside the orchards.
Stemilt Ag Services entered the agreed settlement in April with former field employees after mediation that took place from January through April. The lawsuit, brought by plaintiffs Omar Palma Renteria, Gilberto Gomez Garcia and Jonathan Gomez Rivera on behalf of themselves and thousands of fellow ag laborers, was originally filed in Chelan County court in 2018.
In their legal claim, the plaintiffs said Stemilt engaged in a systematic scheme of wage and hour violations against its farm workers, brought to the U.S. from Mexico under the H-2A agricultural visa program. Orchard work is generally paid under a piece-rate system, based on the amount of fruit a worker harvests, but the plaintiffs said from 2015 to 2018, they were deprived of due pay for labor such as employer-mandated meetings, transport to and from job sites, and sorting and carrying ladders and other equipment.
In their initial Chelan County suit, the plaintiffs’ attorneys agreed to a settlement of just $200,000 for the more than 10,000 farmworkers potentially represented in the class — of which the workers would receive only $80,000. Only 1,200 workers replied to solicitations to join the class, and the settlement was due to be distributed among them in 2019.
The nonprofit legal aid group Columbia Legal Services intervened on the plaintiffs’ behalf, arguing that at least 1,100 more workers were entitled to settlement and had not been properly informed of the case. Superior Court Judge Lesley Allan ordered the settlement to be renegotiated, in part because it called for any wages that went unclaimed to revert back to Stemilt. That violated both legal precedent and Washington court rules, which require a portion of such unclaimed settlements to be handed over to nonprofits representing the plaintiffs’ interests.
The parties removed the case to the Eastern District of Washington federal court in October, and U.S. District Court Judge Salvador Mendoza finalized the settlement Sept. 9. In the new agreement the workers are entitled to just over $2 million— at least $2,072,000 — of the total $3 million settlement fund; the remainder goes to attorneys, mediators and administrative costs, with none of it eligible to be reclaimed by Stemilt.
Columbia Legal Services attorney Joe Morrison said last year the original settlement only allowed class members to make claims by mail, which was sometimes unreliable in Mexico. The new settlement includes options to claim shares “in person, by mail, or
online from anywhere,” according to court records.
An estimated 10,580 former H-2A workers are eligible for settlement claims — everyone employed by Stemilt Ag Services as a hand harvester, pruner, picker, thinner, or farmworker on a piece-rate basis at any time from May 21, 2015 to May 17, 2018. The plaintiffs’ attorneys estimate that if all of them submit claims, each person would receive at least $5.37 back pay for every day worked, or $26.85 per five-day work week.
“… Because it is probable that not all Settlement Class Members will submit claim forms, the actual Settlement Awards will likely be significantly higher,” attorneys wrote in court filings. Even if every former worker files a claim, “many qualified Settlement Class Members would receive checks for over $2,000 each.” As lead plaintiffs, Renteria, Gomez Garcia and Gomez Rivera each receive an added $6,000 award.