18 H-2A farm workers, through their union Familias Unidas por la Justicia, settled and dismissed their lawsuit against Larson Orchards Management, Inc. in exchange for an agreement to re-hire the workers in 2019 and monetary damages. Familias had alleged the company violated a written agreement that pledged not to retaliate against any workers who joined together to correct serious labor law abuses during the 2017 apple harvest. However, prior to the lawsuit being filed in June of this year, Larson Fruit and its labor contractors, WAFLA and CSI Visa Processing, had only rehired four H-2A workers from last year – none of whom participated in the strikes.
The lawsuit arose from a work stoppage in the summer of 2017. Familias Unidas filed a lawsuit on behalf of 18 workers who had engaged in concerted activity in 2017 and were not among the H-2A workers hired by Larson in 2018. Familias Unidas alleged that the workers had been “blacklisted” in violation of state law, and in breach of the agreement reached by the parties following the strike. Larson denied the blacklisting, and since the initiation of the lawsuit has worked with industry participants to secure H-2A work for all 18 workers.
“This is an important settlement for our union, Familias, to protect agricultural workers who assert their rights to improve wages and working conditions on farms and orchards throughout Washington State,” said Ramón Torres. “These workers were very brave and Familias is proud to represent them.”
The terms of the settlement include the payment of up to $275,800 with specific payments directly to the workers as well as a promise by Larson to include the workers on its list of preferred workers in 2019. To the extent Larson does not participate in the H-2A program in 2019 it will pay the workers an additional sum. Keith Larson, President of Larson Orchards, and Ramón Torres, President of Familias Unidas, hailed the settlement as an example of labor and management communicating effectively for the purposes of efficiently resolving labor issues.
“We applaud Larson Orchards for agreeing to re-hire all 18 H-2A workers next year and compensating them for their losses,” said Joe Morrison, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services who, along with Kathy Barnard from Schwerin Campbell Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt LLP, represented Familias Unidas por la Justicia, an agricultural labor union whose members include the H-2A workers. “H-2A workers are highly vulnerable workers with few rights and protections. They take a huge risk to speak up about working conditions in part because of the rampant retaliation and blacklisting within the H-2A program.”
“Familias Unidas is a powerful voice for farm workers across Washington and this settlement sends a strong message that even vulnerable H-2A workers in Mexico can use the court system to protect their rights,” said Kathy Barnard.
The 2017 strikes brought about dramatic changes at the orchard, including the reinstatement of improperly terminated workers and the reassignment of an abusive foreman. The lawsuit, filed in Yakima Superior Court, had asked the court to require that the company hire the workers back and seeks damages for lost wages.
In September 2017, the workers raised numerous concerns including: threats, racial and sexual slurs, unjustified warnings and terminations, unsafe working conditions (e.g. spraying pesticides in orchard blocks where workers are working, broken ladders, etc.), lack of medical attention, refusal to take workers to the doctor, working 12-hour days with only one ten-minute break, and falsification of pay stubs. Instead, the lawsuit alleged that representatives from Larson and WAFLA told the striking workers to get back to work or go home to Mexico. The workers returned to work, but conditions worsened and Larson immediately fired three of the workers. Workers went on strike for several days and brought in Familias Unidas por la Justicia to help them negotiate with Larson and publicize their plight.
The H-2A program is expanding rapidly and Washington state has seen some of the fastest growth of H-2A workers in the nation. Yet, workers and advocates have long raised widespread concerns with the program since H-2A temporary workers have fewer rights than domestic workers, are tied to a single employer, and are vulnerable to abuse or mistreatment (see “You Came Here to Suffer”).