04/10/2012

Court Approves Agreement by Ark. Company to Pay $1.5 Million to Guestworkers owed Back Wages in SPLC Lawsuit

A federal court has approved the $1.5 million settlement agreement the Southern Poverty Law Center reached on behalf of more than 1,500 guestworkers owed back wages by an Arkansas agricultural company. The settlement is one of the largest agreements ever reached against a single employer of foreign guestworkers.

The federal class-action settlement was approved by Judge Robert Dawson in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, El Dorado Division. 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 behalf of the workers.

“This settlement sends an important message to all guestworkers that they have rights that are protected by this country’s judicial system,” said Jim Knoepp, the lead SPLC attorney on the case. “It’s also an important message for the companies that employ guestworkers. These workers are not disposable labor.”

Though settlement agreements have been reached against groups of growers using the federal H-2A temporary guestworker visa program, this settlement is one of the largest against a single grower using the H-2A program.

The guestworkers harvested and packed tomatoes for Candy Brand in Bradley County, Ark., from 2003 to 2007. The 2007 federal 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.

With travel expenses and applications for the H-2A visas, 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 the federal court found the company’s failure to pay overtime wages and reimburse expenses was a clear breach of the workers’ contracts in Perez-Benites, et al. v. Candy Brand LLC, et al.