Courthouse News Service

October 17, 2017

 

Dairy Settles Hispanic Workers’ Claims Over Vermin-Infested Housing

 

By Nick Cahill

 

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – A Central California dairy farm will pay a class of migrant workers $600,000, settling claims of underpaying Mexican employees and providing them with substandard homes infested with rats and cockroaches.

The federal class action claimed that G & H Dairy, located 90 miles east of San Francisco in the Central Valley town of Escalon, purposely hired Hispanic migrant workers because they were “unlikely” to complain about unlawful wages and conditions “no white, U.S. citizen” would accept.

The approximately 120-member class claimed workers were required to work six-day weeks without meal or rest breaks and were paid a fixed salary regardless of the number of hours worked. After milking and cleaning cows for over 10 hours per day, the plaintiffs said they returned to shoddy mobile homes and “cuartitos”, little rooms in Spanish, provided by the dairy.

According to the second amended complaint filed in May, the homes lacked heating or kitchen facilities.

“In addition, vermin, including fleas, cockroaches and rats were present in the cuartitos,” the complaint said. “No white employees of defendants are provided poor quality housing, refused repairs or required to live with the same conditions as plaintiffs.”

In addition, the plaintiffs claimed the defendants used racial slurs like “beaner” and told the migrant workers, “If you’re not happy here, then you can go home.”

U.S. Magistrate Judge Kendall Newman approved the parties’ settlement on Oct. 13, and also awarded the class $170,000 for attorneys’ fees.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys at the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation in Sacramento said the dairy industry should take note of the class action, because “litigation is expensive.”

“I think unfortunately there are a fair number of dairy workers housed in really poor living conditions,” said Dawson Morton, foundation attorney. “You are violating workers’ rights if you have them in substandard homes that fail basic California code.”

Newman presided over negotiations during a settlement conference in June. The dairy and its operators denied liability but agreed to a three-year consent decree requiring it to change its employee housing, meal break and overtime practices.

The dairy declined to comment on the settlement.

The agreement includes $40,000 to settle wrongful termination and retaliation claims of three former employees.

Plaintiffs Hernan Guzman-Padilla and Cipriano and Guillermo Benitez said the dairy destroyed their homes shortly after local news outlets reported the lawsuit. They claim the dairy was trying to destroy and hide evidence in wake of the news reports. The dairy later fired the plaintiffs for “deficient work performance.”

Morton, who is trying a similar case against Van Exel Dairy in nearby Lodi, said the plaintiffs hope their lawsuit sparks change in the dairy industry.

“Our clients are interested in seeing other workers also stand up against illegal workplace conditions,” Morton said.