WENATCHEE - A large group of H-2A farm workers who harvested apples for Wenatchee-based Stemilt Ag Services have filed an employment rights class action lawsuit against the orchardist. The H-2A workers allege that Stemilt violated the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) and the Washington Law Against Discrimination through threats of intimidation that caused H-2A workers to believe that they would suffer serious consequences if they didn’t meet Stemilt’s labor demands.

“This case seeks to protect the rights of H-2A workers, some of our most vulnerable workers, who often come from very poor areas in Mexico and are being taken advantage of by one of the largest agricultural employers in the United States,” said Columbia Legal Services attorney Diana Garcia. “Farm workers perform some of the most arduous jobs, often in extreme weather, to help put fresh food on our tables. They deserve dignity and respect, not threats and retaliation for asserting their rights.”

H-2A migrant workers are not offered the same federal protections as other farm workers. Columbia Legal Services says migrant workers are exposed to retaliation because labor recruiters in foreign countries “routinely refuse to rehire H-2A workers who try to improve working conditions for themselves and others.”

Columbia Legal Services and Keller Rohrback L.L.P. filed the lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Gilberto Gómez García, Jonathan Gómez Rivera, and all other similarly situated H-2A workers who worked for Stemilt in 2017. 

According to Columbia Legal Services, Stemilt’s H-2A contract didn’t contain any production standards. Garcia and Rivera were allegedly told that they had to pick a certain number of bins of apples per day. If they didn’t meet this production standard, they would allegedly receive written warnings.

“They were routinely threatened that if they received three written warnings, they would be fired, returned to Mexico without expenses paid, and banned from future employment. The Gómezes claim their working conditions were intolerable due to Stemilt’s threats to fire them if they did not meet the unlawful production standards and due to Stemilt’s threats that they would not be rehired in the future by Stemilt or other U.S. companies,” Columbia Legal Services stated.

The workers also allege that when H-2A workers were transported to other Stemilt orchards to work, they were not compensated for the time that they spent waiting before the work day began and after the work day ended. Stemilt’s managers routinely required the workers to wait approximately half an hour or more before they were permitted to start work and while the manager completed paperwork at the end of the day.