Owners of Gerawan Farming Inc. say claims in a federal lawsuit that the family owned grower-shipper violated state and federal labor laws are "absurd."
Two farm workers filed the case in U.S. District Court in California. They are seeking class action status for all current and former Gerawan hourly field workers going back four years prior to the Feb. 3 filing of the lawsuit.
The workers, Rafael Amaro and Jesus Urzua, have worked for Gerawan off and on since October 2011 and April 2012, respectively, according to court documents. Gerawan grows and ships under the Prima brand.
In addition to alleged back wages and overtime pay, they want Gerawan Farming to pay $5 million or more, in $500 payments to each of an estimated 10,000 or more workers, according to the lawsuit.
Owners of the grape and tree fruit company based in Fresno, Calif., said in a written statement on Feb. 5 that they have not been served a copy of the lawsuit, but they deny allegations regarding unfair or illegal labor practices. The lawsuit alleges violations including not allowing workers to take legally required rest breaks, failing to pay overtime and failure to pay minimum wage.
"The notion that we would pay below minimum wage, not pay overtime, or not pay for rest breaks is untrue and absurd," the Gerawan family said in the statement.
The Gerawans contend that the attorney representing the two farm workers, Mario Martinez, is also assisting the United Farm Workers union in a dispute with their company. The UFW does list Gerawan Farming under the "key campaigns" section on its website, as well as including the company on the UFW "take action" list at www.ufw.org.
"… the attorney who filed the suit is the same lawyer who has been representing the same union that is now trying to impose itself on our employees," according to the Gerawan statement. "That union was gone for 20 years. In 2012, it returned, and sought to impose a contract on the employees and to demand that they either pay 3% of their wages to the union or lose their jobs."
In fall 2013, Gerawan workers petitioned the California Agriculture Labor Relations Board to allow them to vote on decertifying the union. A regional director for the board initially denied the request, but the board eventually allowed the workers to vote on Nov. 5.
The ballots from that vote still have not been counted because of other pending litigation, according to a ruling by the California board.
Gerawan contends it is a preferred employer and lists average hourly wages on its website ranging from a base field labor rate of $10 per hour to an average of $15.35 per hour for workers who pack grapes and are paid by the piece. Statistics from surveys by the California Grape and Tree Fruit League and Fresno County show an average hourly rate of $8.69 and $9.05 per hour for such jobs, respectively, according to Gerawan"s website.