Above: Sandra Saucedo / photo courtesy Columbia Legal Services
The Wild West is alive and well for some low-wage workers, but things are beginning to change thanks to a courageous group of farm workers in Washington State’s Yakima Valley. Juan Morfin, a foreman who farm workers alleged routinely cheated them out of wages by intimidating them with his gun, recently lost his Yakima Valley apple orchard job thanks to a class-action lawsuit filed by a farm worker, Sandra Saucedo, and a group of her co-workers.
Saucedo, who had the courage to call 911 on behalf of her fellow workers in an attempt to stop the gun use, was thrilled with the outcome.
“Farm work is hard enough without the foreman pulling out a gun to intimidate people. We tried to complain to his brother and the people in the office, but they never took our complaints seriously. They can no longer supervise workers at these orchards and that is a big victory that we hope will protect future workers,” said Saucedo.
A Worker Testifies
Q: Did you call 911 or a different number?
A: I just dialed 911. I think it was a sheriff's deputy that answered.
Q: What did you tell the police when they answered?
A: That Juan Morfin was shooting out in the field and that he was scaring people that were already there.
Q: And do you know of anybody who was scared?
A: Well, I think that Abelardo and Maria were.
Q: Did they tell you they were scared?
A: I could tell by looking at their face. I knew they were scared.
Q: Did anybody tell you they were scared that day?
A: Well, Abelardo and I said that that needed to stop because there had been other occasions when he had his gun and
Q: Other than the discussion you had with Abelardo did you ask anybody if they were scared?
A: Well, I didn't have to ask anyone else. I was worried for myself and for others.
~ Excerpts from sworn testimony of Sandra Saucedo, January 24, 2013, during federal court class action filed by Columbia Legal Services on behalf of 722 farm workers in the Eastern District of Washington State.
Columbia Legal Services, a public interest non-profit law firm, represented Saucedo and approximately 722 farm workers who toiled in these orchards over the last several years. The workers brought the lawsuit after several of them were fired in retaliation for calling the police because Morfin routinely fired his gun at work. As a result of the workers coming forward, the gun-toting foreman and his manager brother who failed to listen and respond to farm worker complaints are no longer employed at the orchards.
When CLS attorneys questioned Morfin under oath about his past gun use he testified he had never owned a gun, never held one in his hand, and could not recall if he had ever been arrested on gun charges. Columbia Legal Services filed Washington State Patrol documents with the federal court showing Morfin had in fact spent 90 days in jail after pleading guilty to reckless endangerment for aiming a firearm at another person. The same report detailed that Morfin had been found guilty on other firearms violations and paid a $200 fine.
Morfin worked for an unlicensed labor contractor that was hired by the absentee landowners – multiple corporate entities related to John Hancock Insurance Company in Boston, Massachusetts. The Hancock entities denied liability, claiming the underfunded labor contractor was the farmer, even though Hancock agents signed Washington state tax exemption documents that stated, under penalty of perjury, that they were the “farmer” of the orchard. Hancock entities not only owned the land, they owned all the orchard equipment and arranged for all payroll funds to be wired into the labor contractor’s bank accounts.
The federal court recently awarded the class of farm workers $1,004,000 in damages against the labor contractor and the corporate owners and managers for violations of Washington State law protecting farm workers, including failure to register and to give required information to workers about wages and working conditions. One of the corporate defendants has filed an appeal with the Ninth Circuit based in San Francisco, but no date has been set for oral arguments. Each worker named in the class action lawsuit will be entitled to receive between $1,000 and $3,000 depending on the length of their employment.
This decision rightly puts money in the pockets of hard-working farm workers and sends a clear message that absentee land owners will be held responsible for violations committed by their labor contractors.
Joachim Morrison is an attorney with Columbia Legal Services