Paying farmworkers piece-rate wages – wages determined by the amount of produce harvested – is commonplace in the Salinas Valley. In some instances experienced workers can pull in more than minimum wage by swiftly packing a crate of tomatoes, for example. A class action lawsuit filed in Monterey County Superior Court in 2015 is pushing back on the practice, however, claiming that Western Packing, Inc. and three farms failed to pay even minimum wage, as well as denying workers full meal and rest periods, among other violations.
“The claims of this lawsuit spring from a pattern of employer misconduct and wrongdoing that has characterized the labor system in much of the agricultural industry,” the suit states. The farmworkers are asking for wages and damages as well as a repayment of “wrongfully-obtained revenue.”
On Oct. 22, Judge Lydia Villarreal ruled plaintiffs have enough to go to a jury trial, scheduled for June.
But even if they prevail there might be a catch in collecting a jury award. Western Packing filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on Sept. 23, claiming $220,600 in assets and $1.7 million in debts, including $1.1 million owed to the IRS. According to a statement signed by President Maria Teresa Lopez Gonzalez, the company has $1,067 in a business checking account and zero in a payroll checking account.
In addition to the IRS debt, Western owes Cal/OSHA over $16,000 for violations and $5,000 to the Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner for a civil penalty. Gonzalez’s mother, meanwhile, is owed $80,000 for a loan to cover payroll. Gonzalez and eight family members received more than $130,000 in salary in the last year.