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Farmworkers in Wilson County will be paid $600,000 in back wages after settling a federal lawsuit against Scott Farms.
Attorneys for the North Carolina Justice Center and private attorney Robert Willis represented nine workers who were allegedly paid wages lower than temporary foreign workers in the H-2A visa program.
The workers were employed by Scott Farms Inc. between 2014 and 2017 doing various jobs dealing with sweet potatoes and tobacco crops.
The original complaint was filed on July 17, 2017, in the Eastern District of North Carolina. U.S. District Judge Louise Wood Flanagan signed the final settlement agreement Friday.
Plaintiffs in the suit were Richardo Mondragon, Eustorgio Espinobarros Feliciano, Juan Contreras, Culberto Ortiz Hernandez, Ramon Ortiz Hernández, Alejandro Jimenez Gonzalez, Renato Romero Acuña, José Tapia, Anastacio Lopez Solisand and Abdon Quirasco Sexteco.
Defendants in the suit included Scott Farms Inc., Alice H. Scott, Linwood H. Scott Jr., Dewey R. Scott, JFT Harvesting Inc, Juan F. Torres, Oasis Harvesting Inc. and Ramiro B. Torres.
According to its website, Scott Farms is a sixth-generation family farm based in Lucama. The company grows sweet potatoes, tobacco, wheat, soybeans and corn. Linwood “Sonny” Scott Jr., along with his wife, Alice, and sons, Linwood III and Dewey, are co-owners of the farming, production and packing operations.
Scott Farms does business in the United States as a supplier to Whole Foods and other retailers and sells sweet potatoes in Europe. In the last decade, the company constructed a 60,000 square-foot sizing, grading, packing and shipping facility in Lucama.
According to a release from the N.C. Justice Center, Scott Farms “employed temporary foreign workers through the federal H-2A program while paying local employees at much lower wage rates to perform the same work.”
“The regulations governing the H-2A program require payment of what is known as an Adverse Effect Wage Rate to H-2A workers,” the N.C. Justice Center said. “Regulations say that H-2A employers must pay the same or higher wages to domestic farmworkers engaged in what is known as ‘corresponding employment’ with H-2A workers so that the employment of H-2A workers will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers. The Adverse Effect Wage Rate for North Carolina in 2020 is $12.67 per hour.”
In its suit, some workers were alleged to have been paid $7.50 per hour.
“We are so impressed with the courage of the nine persons who stepped forward to speak out about the unfairness of performing the same work as H-2A workers for dollars less per hour,” said Carol Brooke, senior attorney with the Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project, who represented the farmworkers along with Justice Center senior attorney Clermont Ripley and private attorney Robert Willis. “Many of these workers were, and continue to be, Scott Farms employees. Their willingness to fight for their right to equal pay and overtime has benefited hundreds of farmworkers.”
F. Marshall Wall, attorney for Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog LLP, representing Scott Farms, spoke to The Wilson Times Monday afternoon.
“We believe that Scott Farms has and does follow the law in paying its workers,” Wall said. “We think that Scott Farms meets and exceeds any federal or state requirements both in terms of paying is workers and its labor practices and its farming operations more generally. It is a very well-run business. It is one that has been successful because of the efforts of the Scott family over a very long time. It is a family-owned business that has frankly a credit to Wilson County and they have done very well.”
Wall said Scott Farms has denied that it did anything wrong.
“I understand that it is attention-grabbing to see an amount of money like this being paid,” Wall said. “The truth of it is that it is very expensive when somebody sues you in a case like this. There is the potential that Scott Farms would have to pay attorneys fees for the folks who sued them.”
Wall said those fees “tend to get run up very high because there is not much reason for them to not do that, so their attorneys come back to Scott Farms and say ‘Here, you have got to pay our bill.’ That is the way the wage and hour statutes work.”
“Scott Farms made the decision to resolve the case because it believed that while it had not done anything wrong, that it was the best outcome to resolve now two and a half years of litigation that’s gone on in the case and there is more to be done.,” Wall said. “It was a resolution to buy their peace, so to speak, but not an admission that there was any violation of any state law, federal law or anything else.”
The total amount of the settlement is $775,000, with $175,000 going toward attorney fees, including $72,573.32 in attorney fees for the N.C. Justice Center, plus $9,024.04 in costs, and to attorney Robert J. Willis in the amount of $88,700.73 in attorney fees and $4,701 in costs.
“There’s a certain amount of money that gets divided amongst the members of the classes, what’s called a class action lawsuit,” Wall said. “And so that money gets distributed to the individuals who worked at Scott Farms over a several-year period of time. That’s the other thing that is to remember. There is a fairly long period of time that is covered by this settlement, so it is a number of years and a number of seasons there at the farm that are covered by this.”
Some $585,999.93 will be divided between 383 workers.
There is a wide range of back wages due with one worker receiving $6.84 and another receiving $12,493.07. Most workers will receive a few thousand dollars to a few hundred dollars.
“That is definitely the most common outcome here that there are fairly small claims, and I think that reflects the fact that really on their arguments, these individual clients would not be entitled a great deal of money even if they were in the right,” Wall said.
The attorney said the company is glad to have the suit settled.
“I think that for Scott Farms, it is good to have the case resolved and behind it and allow them to go and do what they do best, which is to farm and not have to worry with it anymore,” Wall said. “I think that it is always frustrating, frankly, to have a case like this where you don’t believe that you have done anything wrong but you get sued and you have to deal with it. So, from that perspective I am sure that my client, like most clients in civil lawsuits, are not entirely happy, but they are happy to have it behind them.”