Ag Contractors Accused of Corruption
Lawsuit says ag company stole from farmworkers
Thursday, December 20, 2007
When celery harvesters left his crew, supervisor Jorge Aguilar allegedly kept some of the farmworkers on the payroll. Aguilar, who used to work for Castroville-based Sea Breeze Harvesting, then pocketed the checks of the “ghost employees,” according to Fritz Conle, union representative for Teamsters Local 890. “He was getting four or five of the worker’s checks,” Conle says. “That means everyone else made that much less money.”
This is one allegation that triggered a class action lawsuit filed Oct. 1 against Monterey County-based farm labor contractors Valley Pride, Sea Breeze Harvesting and Premium Packing. The lawsuit alleges that the companies failed to pay overtime; and provide rest and meal periods, dating back to June 2003. The companies’ supervisors also routinely demanded cash for hire and kickbacks to stay on the crew, the lawsuit says.
Company representatives declined to respond to the allegations, saying they are investigating the charges. “We need to do a thorough investigation before we come to any conclusions,” says Art Barrientos, co-owner and president of Sea Breeze. “We’ve always prided ourselves on following every labor law and every wage and hour law that is on the books.”
Although the lawsuit only names Pedro Bautista and Jose Moreno as plaintiffs, Conle says about 150 workers were affected. The workers hope to earn their unpaid wages, which, combined with fines, could total $5 million. None of workers are unionized, but the Teamsters helped them get legal assistance.
Since some of the workers are undocumented, union officials say, the case points to a broken immigration system where ag companies exploit employees who are afraid to speak out because of their legal status.
Teague Paterson, the farmworkers’ attorney, says labor contractors often skirt labor laws like paying overtime or providing a lunch break. “These practices are not as uncommon as we would hope,” Paterson says.
Growers use labor contractors as fronts to shield their company name from scrutiny, Paterson says. “One of the services that farm labor contractors provide is basically for the growers to absolve themselves for any responsibility of law,” he says.
In this case, Valley Pride and Sea Breeze do most of the harvesting for artichoke grower Ocean Mist Farms. Joe Pezzini, vice president of operations for Ocean Mist, is also a managing partner for Valley Pride. Barrientos of Sea Breeze doubles as Ocean Mist’s vice president of harvesting.
Lawyers for the farm labor contractors have filed legal arguments to dismiss some of the allegations. Among other points, they say meal and rest periods are not mandatory for ag workers under an Industrial Welfare Commission wage order. In response to the allegation that the companies’ supervisors stole money from “ghost employees,” the legal filing says it is a criminal action that is not fit for civil court.
At a Jan. 18 hearing, a judge will decide whether the case moves forward.