Photo:Honduran immigrants pick strawberries for Fancy Farms in Plant City.
Of Counsel - Florida Law
Non-profit Florida Rural Legal Services handles cases 'nobody would take.'
Two years ago, Florida Rural Legal Services, a non-profit law firm that provides civil legal aid to migrant workers statewide, filed a federal lawsuit in Tampa on behalf of 56 Hondurans.
The case stemmed from 2013, when Fancy Farms, a family-owned farm in Plant City, hired a recruiter to find foreign workers to harvest strawberries. The recruiter, operating in Honduras, rounded up dozens of workers and, as a condition of employment, forced them to pay between $3,000 and $4,500 each, according to the lawsuit.
The workers say they were told that the payments were “guarantees,” to ensure they wouldn’t “abscond from their positions,” and that they’d get the money back at the end of the harvest season. The workers went into debt to pay the fees or “sold their cars and everything they could because they saw this as an opportunity to come back year after year for work,” says their attorney Andrea Ortega, director of the migrant farmworker unit for Florida Rural Legal Services in Fort Myers. “They thought it was worth the investment.”
Under the federal government’s H-2A guest-worker program, employers may bring foreign nationals to the U.S. to fill temporary agricultural jobs to help fill labor shortages. In securing H-2A visas for its workers, Fancy Farms agreed to abide by a number of rules, including a ban against charging prospective employees recruitment fees.
By failing “to take affirmative or specific action” to prohibit its recruiter from doing just that, the lawsuit states, Fancy Farms breached the terms of the workers’ contracts under the H-2A program. The suit also claims that after factoring in the upfront cost of the fees, the workers’ pay fell below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour during their first week on the job.
The Fancy Farms lawsuit is typical of cases that Florida Rural Legal Services (FRLS) takes on for two reasons: One, wage and hour disputes are some of the most common issues that migrant workers deal with, says Daniel Cruz, managing attorney of the organization’s Fort Myers office. Two, because the litigation costs could exceed the value of the claim, most for-profit law firms are reluctant to get involved. “We get the types of cases nobody would take,” Cruz says.
FRLS was founded in 1966 during President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty to provide free legal help to Florida’s migrant workers. It has since expanded its services to low-income families and seniors in 13 counties throughout south-central Florida. In addition to workplace disputes, FRLS handles challenges to evictions and foreclosures, divorce actions for domestic-violence survivors and public benefits claims.
Today, the organization has seven offices with 55 employees, including 21 staff attorneys. It gets most of its funding from Legal Services Corp., a publicly funded non-profit based in Washington, D.C. FRLS directly represents or advises about 7,000 low-income Floridians each year. An additional 6,000 attend clinics and classes that educate them about what they can do on their own to avoid being scammed or victimized.
As part of its mission, FRLS also works with local employment centers to ensure that foreign workers are not displacing domestic workers on Florida farms. “At the end of the day, the guest worker program is not meant to take away jobs for U.S. workers,” Ortega says. “It’s meant to help employers who don’t have enough available workers domestically.”
The plaintiffs in the Fancy Farms lawsuit are seeking an undisclosed amount of back wages, plus damages. Most of the workers finished the jobs they came to do but never got their money returned, Ortega says. The case is expected to go to trial later this year.
In its defense, Fancy Farms says it tried to “comply in good faith with all applicable” labor rules and never authorized its contracted recruiter to charge recruitment fees. “To the extent the plaintiffs have been damaged by paying unauthorized recruitment or processing fees, any such damages have been caused” by the recruiter, the company’s response says. As a result, Fancy Farms is not responsible for reimbursing the plaintiffs’ recruitment fees, it says. The company also seeks to dismiss their claim for back wages, saying the statute of limitations has expired.
Meanwhile, the recruiter is believed to be somewhere in Central America, Ortega says. Fearful of reprisal from the recruiter, some workers remain in the U.S., with or without legal permission from the government. Others have returned to Honduras.
“They were duped,” Ortega says. “They thought they’d be able to provide a better life for their families. Instead, they now find themselves in unstable and dangerous situations.”
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