01/05/2012

Arkansas Company to Pay $1.5 Million to Guestworkers Owed Back Wages in SPLC Lawsuit

More than 1,500 guestworkers owed back wages by an Arkansas agricultural company will be paid a total of $1.5 million in a settlement with the SPLC – one of the largest agreements ever reached against a single employer of foreign guestworkers.

Candy Brand, one of the Southeast’s largest employers of guestworkers, agreed to the settlement more than four years after the SPLC brought a federal lawsuit against the company on the workers’ behalf.

“This settlement sends an important message that guestworkers have rights,” said Jim Knoepp, the lead SPLC attorney on the case. “Companies treating guestworkers as disposable labor should take notice. They will be held accountable.”

The guestworkers harvested and packed tomatoes for Candy Brand in Bradley County, Ark., from 2003 to 2007. The 2007 lawsuit alleged that the company failed to pay its guestworkers federally mandated minimum wages and failed to pay overtime wages for work in its packing sheds.

To cover travel expenses and applications for visas under the federal H-2A guestworker program, Candy Brand’s workers paid up to $500 simply to work for the company during eight-week harvests. The SPLC lawsuit alleged the company refused to reimburse workers for the travel, visa and other fees they paid to obtain the jobs – a problem commonly faced by guestworkers.

The settlement comes after a May 20 federal court order that found the company’s failure to pay overtime wages and reimburse expenses was a clear breach of the workers’ contracts. The class action lawsuit, Perez-Benites, et al. v. Candy Brand LLC, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, El Dorado Division.