McALLEN, Texas (CN) - Migrant farmworkers lured from Texas to North Carolina were paid less than minimum wage, with fee-ridden Wal-Mart money cards, 18 workers claim in a lawsuit against the farm and recruiters.
Lead plaintiff Noe Chairez-Esparza sued Jeffrey J. Darnell dba Darnell Farms, Levi J. Simmons Jr. and Alma Gabriela Nava Simmons dba 1 Source Engineered Labor Solutions.
Wal-Mart is not a party to the lawsuit.
"Defendants recruited plaintiffs in Texas and induced them to uproot and travel to North Carolina with false promises of ample pay," the complaint states. "While in North Carolina, defendants flaunted federal health and safety laws designed to protect migrant farmworkers, including transporting plaintiffs to work in fields located in the Great Smoky Mountains in vehicles without fully operational brakes. Among other things, defendants failed to pay plaintiffs their full wages owed for work plaintiffs performed on defendants' strawberry farm. When defendants did pay plaintiffs, defendants' deplorable payroll practices included paying plaintiffs less than the federal minimum wage and with prepaid money cards from a retail store subject to regular service and withdrawal fees."
Chairez-Esparza claims the Simmonses recruited workers at the Hidalgo County, Texas flea market and the McAllen bus station for the summer and fall 2011 strawberry harvesting season at Darnell's North Carolina farm.
The Simmonses promised them $8 per hour for a training period, Chairez-Esparza says, and a piece rate of $11 per box of harvested strawberries once they were trained.
But that's not what happened when they got to North Carolina, Chairez-Esparza says.
"Defendants failed to pay plaintiffs the required federal minimum wage for all their hours of work during each workweek," the complaint states.
"Defendants failed to pay plaintiffs the promised wage for all their hours of work during each workweek. ...
"Defendants did not make, keep, or preserve payroll records accurately reflecting the hours plaintiffs worked or other information required by the FLSA [Fair Labor Standards Act] or the AWPA [Agricultural Worker Protection Act].
"Defendants did not consistently provide plaintiffs with itemized pay statements for each pay period. The pay statements that Defendants did provide did not clearly indicate hours worked or the piece units picked. The pay statements did not show the employer's address and Internal Revenue Service Employer Identification Number, or the pay period dates.
"For some pay periods, defendants paid plaintiffs their wages with Wal-Mart money cards, which were subject to a $3.00 monthly service fee and a $2.00 cash withdrawal fee when used at an Automatic Teller Machine. ...
"Defendants made deductions from plaintiffs' pay, but failed to accurately report and remit plaintiffs' wages and to pay the required employer's share to the Social Security Administration.
"Defendants failed to issue each Plaintiff a W-2 form."
Not only that, Chairez-Esparza claims, they were promised free housing with full kitchens to prepare their meals, but were put in the Stardust Motel in Sylva, N.C., where the only way to cook was with microwaves.
Consequently, Chairez-Esparza says the workers "incurred higher out of pocket expenses for microwavable food and were forced to eat meals that were of inferior nutritional value."
The workers demand unpaid wages and damages for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Protection Act and breach of contract.
They are represented by Daniela Dwyer with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, of Weslaco, Texas.