WENATCHEE (Washington) WORLD

February 9, 2018

 

Stemilt Ag settles farmworker class action for $464,000

 

By Jefferson Robbins

 

WENATCHEE — All parties in a class action lawsuit against Stemilt Ag Services agreed to dismiss the case Thursday, with the farm management company paying $393,624 to former fieldworkers as part of a nearly $464,000 settlement.

The settlement repays the money owed to 690 workers for rest breaks taken during their agricultural shifts in 2014 and 2015, and pays more than $168,000 in attorneys’ fees and administrative costs. It also includes a $5,000 payout to Francisco Flores Olivares, the lead plaintiff who pushed the case on behalf of himself and his fellow workers.

Chelan County Superior Court Judge Robert McSeveney signed off on the settlement in an afternoon court hearing, five months after his predecessor, Judge Alicia Nakata, approved the outline of the deal. Robert Siderius, attorney for Stemilt Ag, said the settlement represents roughly 96 to 97 percent of what the claimants’ actual compensation would have been if paid at the time.

Stemilt Ag Services, which manages orchard land for private fruit growers, hired the workers at a “piece rate” of pay based on productivity. A July 2015 state Supreme Court ruling, in Demetrio v. Sakuma Brothers, held that farmworkers paid a piece rate must also be separately compensated for rest breaks — 10 minutes for every four hours of work.

“It was kind of a hard, sharp ruling for all employers who pay on the piece rate,” said Craig Ackermann, an attorney for Olivares and the class plaintiffs.

Olivares filed the class-action suit in January 2017, saying Stemilt Ag Services had not paid rest-break compensation; the company denied wrongdoing and disputed the legal basis for the suit. Two federal courts have ruled that rest-break repayments must be made retroactively to past employees, but the Washington Supreme Court never addressed the question.

Claims administrators sought out more than 4,600 orchard workers who might have been affected by the pay arrangement, but only 690 submitted claims. The settlement repays the rest breaks, distributing an average of $438 to the former workers, or “class members,” who submitted a valid claim. The maximum claim repaid for a single worker is $2,000.

“In my experience, these amounts are substantial recoveries for class members in a class action involving wage and hour claims, and in particular unpaid rest break claims involving piece-rate farm workers,” wrote India Bodien, a plaintiffs’ attorney, in a court filing.