Western Growers and the California Fresh Fruit Association announced today they will file a friend-of-the-court brief supporting a lawsuit challenging provisions of a new law that provides a safe harbor from class action lawsuits to employers who make back payment to piece-rate employees.
The provisions in question, demanded by the United Farm Workers (UFW) union, specifically exclude from Assembly Bill 1513’s “safe harbor” at least two fruit companies targeted by the union on unrelated matters. The provisions were specifically added to the legislation as the price of UFW’s acquiescence to the legislation (AB 1513, 2015).
The two companies, both headquartered in Fresno, CA, are Fowler Packing and Gerawan Farming, both of which are large growers of stone fruit and table grapes.
“It is unseemly and shameful that the Legislature allowed the UFW to demand provisions that carve out two farm employers from a law that was otherwise thoughtfully crafted to get money to thousands of farm workers quickly and without subjecting employers to predatory class action lawsuits,” said Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers. “We are proud to take this action to help persuade the court to right this wrong and extend the benefits of AB 1513 to the thousands of farmworkers sacrificed by the Legislature and the UFW.”
California Fresh Fruit Association President Barry Bedwell agreed with Nassif and elaborated on the UFW’s characterization of the two companies.
“While there rightfully remains indignation in regard to the way the carve-out sections were negotiated, everyone should know that this legal action is specifically directed to only these unfair and unjust provisions that specifically target two employers and the ludicrous accusation of somehow being ‘bad actors,’” he said. “In fact and in practice, these employers are exemplary in their relationships and interactions with employees and they and their workers deserve the same opportunities this legislation affords to others. CFFA is pleased to do what it can to see that happen.”
Assembly Bill 1513 was the product of lengthy negotiations between the Gov. Jerry Brown administration, labor unions and individual agricultural employers. Interest in this legislation was driven by the fallout from two state appellate court decisions in 2013 that changed long-accepted compensation practices for non-productive time and rest and recovery periods taken by employees compensated on a piece-rate basis. The court decisions spurred a wave of class-action lawsuits against employers. Under existing state labor laws, those employers faced as much as four years of retroactive exposure to immense damages, penalties and legal costs for practices that even state labor agency regulators deemed proper for prior decades.
In August 2015, after negotiations concluded and AB 1513 was presented to the Legislature, the UFW demanded amendments targeting Fowler Packing and Gerawan Farming, two employers targeted by the UFW on issues unrelated to the issues at the heart of AB 1513. The UFW had alleged that Fowler Packing had deliberately used “ghost employees” on piece-rate crews to lower the wages of employees. This allegation had not been adjudicated and proven – and remains in dispute.
Separately, the UFW has been engaged in a long effort to force employees of Gerawan Farms to join the union and pay mandatory dues, or be dismissed from the company. Thousands of Gerawan employees demanded a state-supervised election to decertify the UFW in 2013, but the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board has refused to count their votes.
The lawsuit challenging the UFW amendments will be filed by the Pacific Legal Foundation on behalf of its clients, Fowler Packing and Gerawan Farms.