Court: Stemilt settlement with former ag workers needs revision

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WENATCHEE — A class-action settlement that would have paid back wages to thousands of Wenatchee Valley immigrant workers is on hold, after a judge found it was flawed in favor of the employer.

Stemilt Ag Services was set to pay more than $80,000 to an estimated 4,300 Mexican H-2A workers, who sued for wages they were owed dating back to 2015. But Columbia Legal Services, a nonprofit legal agency, intervened on behalf of about 1,100 more workers, who were not properly notified of the settlement. CLS attorney Joe Morrison says that’s in part because of an unreliable Mexican mail system:

“The notification process that they set up really wouldn’t have notified people,” Morrison says. “They had agreed to mail things to people in Mexico, and what a lot of people don’t know here, is that the Mexican mail system really doesn’t work very well.”

Aside from the notification problems, Chelan County Judge Lesley Allan ruled last week that the settlement has another flaw: Wages that go unclaimed would revert back to Stemilt, in defiance of both past legal precedent and the rules that govern Washington courts. A portion of unclaimed settlements in such cases is supposed to be handed over to nonprofits representing the plaintiffs’ interests.

Columbia Legal Services, Stemilt’s attorneys, and the attorneys for the original workers now must reexamine the settlement, and come up with a deal that satisfies all parties. Some of the workers have brought a separate lawsuit in federal court.