Settlement for 4,300 ag workers delayed in court

3003

WENATCHEE — A Chelan County court settlement that would have paid back wages to thousands of migrant workers is on hold after a judge’s order.

Stemilt Ag Services was prepared to pay more than $80,000 to an estimated 4,300 Mexican H-2A workers employed as far back as 2015, for field tasks separate from orchard harvesting. But Columbia Legal Services, a nonprofit civil defense agency, says the settlement risks excluding about 1,100 more workers who were not properly notified of the class action — in part due to an unreliable Mexican mail system.

On Thursday, Superior Court Judge Lesley Allan refused to authorize the settlement, which would also have paid $93,000 in attorneys’ fees and administrative costs. She ordered attorneys to do more research into the matter.

The suit by key plaintiff Omar Palma Renteria, filed in 2018, sought reimbursement for Renteria and fellow workers for tasks other than fruit picking, carried out during harvest and pruning seasons for the previous three years. The workers were paid on a “piece rate” system, rewarded for the volume of fruit they produced. Renteria’s suit alleged neither he nor his coworkers were properly compensated for other tasks or time spent at job sites.

The piece rate system has been the subject of numerous court actions, including a 2018 state Supreme Court decision that found agricultural workers are also entitled to hourly compensation for other aspects of their jobs, such as work meetings, traveling between orchards and moving equipment.

No new settlement date has been scheduled.