LAW 360

January 23, 2017

 

Ky. Tobacco Farm Settles Wage Claims By H-2A Workers

 

By Kevin Penton

 

Law360, New York -- A Kentucky federal judge on Monday signed off on a settlement between a tobacco farm and six agricultural workers hired under H-2A visas who alleged they were stiffed on minimum and overtime wages.

 

Planck Farm, B.S. Land and Cattle Co. LLC and several related officials agreed to pay the workers $106,309 to settle allegations that the employers violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act and other claims, according to the order signed by U.S. District Judge Joseph M. Hood.

 

Of the funds, $27,097 will be paid to the workers' attorneys and expert as fees, and $38,596 will constitute liquidated damages and unpaid wages under the FLSA, according to the settlement.

 

"In the opinion of the court, the settlement agreement and release of claims represents a good-faith, fair and reasonable resolution of all of plaintiffs' claims against the defendants," according to Judge Hood's order.

 

The workers sued the farms in May 2015, alleging they were paid much less than the guaranteed wage rate under the H-2A program and often less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, the complaint said. The workers claimed they were paid only $6 per hour, even though the appropriate H-2A wage rate was $9.80 to $10.28 per hour, according to court documents.

 

The workers also alleged the farm owners provided them with rat-infested housing that failed to meet federal standards, that had leaking sewage, a lack of proper beds, and that violated numerous other provisions of their contracts, according to the complaint.

 

They additionally accused the farm owners of taking their passports so that they were unable to leave.

 

The complaint by the workers in the instant case was filed concurrently with complaints raising similar allegations against other tobacco farms in Kentucky. The two other cases are still active, according to court documents.

 

"The wage violations alleged by the plaintiffs here are fairly typical of complaints we receive from guestworkers employed in the Kentucky tobacco industry," Gregory S. Schell, an attorney representing the workers, told Law360on Monday. "It is not uncommon for tobacco workers to put in 70 to 90 hours per week, but many workers complain to us that they are paid for only a fraction of these hours."

 

Counsel for the farm owners could not be reached for comment on Monday.

 

The workers are represented by Gregory S. Schell and Caitlin Berberich of Southern Migrant Legal Services, Douglas L. Stevick of Texas RioGrande Legal Aid Inc. and McKenzie Cantrell of the Kentucky Equal Justice Center.

 

The farm owners are represented by Kelly A. Holden and Kevin F. Hoskins of Dressman Benzinger LaVelle PSC.

 

The case is Gutrierrez-Morales et al. v. Planck Jr. et al., case number 5:15-cv-00158, in in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky.