Stiffed In The Fields
Farmworkers file lawsuits against Dole, Diversified labor contractor.
Thursday, March 23, 2006
Dole Food Company officials know that 11 seasonal farmworkers who labored on Dole-owned fields in Monterey County last year weren’t paid wages owed them. In fact, company officials have known about this for four months. But as of this week, Dole still hasn’t given the workers their money.
Earlier this month, the 11 farmworkers, represented by California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) in Salinas, filed a lawsuit against both Dole and Diversified Harvester, a Central Valley-based labor contractor that Dole charged with finding, hiring and paying the farmworkers.
The CRLA’s lead lawyer on the case, Michael Meuter, says that the workers are owed a total of nearly $42,000. That sum includes wages due from bounced checks and unpaid overtime hours, as well as fines for failing to pay workers at least the minimum wage and other labor violations.
Meuter says that Diversified paid workers less than minimum wage and, in some cases, didn’t pay laborers anything at all.
Jacinto Melchor of Salinas is one of the workers who didn’t get his money.
Early one morning in October of last year, he approached a large white bus in Salinas that was about to head out into the fields. Melchor says he told the man in charge that he needed a job, and was quickly let on the bus. In a few minutes, he was headed towards a lettuce field owned by Dole.
Melchor worked with the same crew plucking lettuce heads out of the earth for about 10 days, after which his services were no longer needed.
When he went to cash the two checks the foreman had given him, however, they bounced.
Melchor was in a bind. He had never asked the full name of his foreman and knew only that the labor contractor, Diversified, had an office in Hanford. So Melchor hopped on a bus for Hanford to complain about the two bounced checks, which totaled $229.40.
“But I never found their office, so I came back home,” Melchor says.
As a last resort, Melchor went to the CRLA office. That’s when he realized that other workers contracted by Diversified to work on Dole lands were having similar problems.
In addition to bounced checks, Meuter says that Diversified paid workers less than minimum wage, didn’t pay any overtime and, in some cases, didn’t pay laborers anything at all.
Meuter explains that the reason Dole is being targeted in the suit (in addition to Diversified) is because Diversified’s labor contracting license expired on July 1, 2005. This, Meuter says, makes Dole vulnerable to any civil action for the money owed to the workers. Meuter cites California Labor Code Section 1695.7, which says that a grower who enters into an agreement with a farm labor contractor whose license expires is “subject to a civil action by an aggrieved worker for any claims...that are a direct result of any violation of any state law regulating wages, housing, pesticides, or transportation committed by the unlicensed farm labor contractor.”
“California law is pretty black and white on this issue,” Meuter says.
Dole officials, apparently, have another way of looking at the law. Dole’s attorney, Kathleen Wandorziel, says that the 11 farmworkers in the case weren’t paid for their labor “by the employer [Diversified]...the labor contractor is the employer.”
In other words, Wandorziel says that Dole wasn’t technically the employer of the workers, and therefore isn’t liable for the unpaid wages.
Wandorziel refused to answer any further questions. She said that a company spokesperson would contact the Weekly to make further comments. At press time, no one from Dole had contacted the Weekly.
Meuter says CRLA did its part to avoid a court case by repeatedly sending Dole letters with specific information about each of the workers and what they were owed for their work. “We were hoping that they would do the right thing,” Meuter says, “but they haven’t.”
A court date has yet to be set.
Meuter says that Diversified has a history of “stiffing workers,” and that in the past, CRLA has represented workers with similar complaints against the company. So far, neither CRLA nor Dole have been successful in making contact with Diversified officials. Both telephone numbers listed for Diversified have been disconnected.