[9/15/21] Stemilt Growers Settlement

Posted in Agriculture

Stemilt Growers, the area’s largest fruit producer, will pay $3 million in a settlement with more than 10,000 visiting agricultural workers to reimburse three years of unpaid wages.

The agreement hashed out in federal court is 25 times the amount the H-2A workers would have received under a settlement proposed last year. The plaintiffs claimed Stemilt Ag Services, which hires field workers for Stemilt’s orchard operations throughout Washington, deprived them of pay they should have received for labor outside the orchards.

In their legal claim originally filed in 2018, the plaintiffs said Stemilt engaged in a systematic scheme of wage and hour violations against its farm workers, brought to the U.S. from Mexico under the H-2A agricultural visa program. Orchard work is generally paid under a piece-rate system, based on the amount of fruit a worker harvests, but the plaintiffs said from 2015 to 2018, they were deprived of due pay for labor such as employer-mandated meetings, transport to and from job sites, and sorting and carrying ladders and other equipment.

In the initial suit, the plaintiffs’ attorneys agreed to a settlement of $200,000 for the more than 10,000 farmworkers potentially represented in the class — of which the workers would receive only $80,000. Only 1,200 workers replied to solicitations to join the class, and the settlement was due to be distributed among them in 2019.

The nonprofit legal aid group Columbia Legal Services intervened on the plaintiffs’ behalf, arguing that at least 1,100 more workers were entitled to settlement and had not been properly informed of the case. Superior Court Judge Lesley Allan ordered the settlement to be renegotiated, in part because it called for any wages that went unclaimed to revert back to Stemilt. That violated both legal precedent and Washington court rules, which require a portion of such unclaimed settlements to be handed over to nonprofits representing the plaintiffs’ interests.

An estimated 10,580 former H-2A workers are eligible for settlement claims — everyone employed by Stemilt Ag Services as a hand harvester, pruner, picker, thinner, or farmworker on a piece-rate basis at any time from May 21, 2015 to May 17, 2018.