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Grower Owes Back Pay for Travel

D'Arrigo of Salinas must compensate workers for time in transit, a judge rules.

March 24, 2004|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

One of the largest vegetable farms in California must pay workers for the time they spent traveling in company vans to and from fields in the Salinas Valley, a federal judge has ruled.

The judgment is the largest of its kind -- both in the potential dollar damages and in the number of workers affected -- since the California Supreme Court ruled in a precedent-setting case four years ago that farmworkers must be paid for compulsory travel time, said Paul Strauss, a Chicago attorney who represented the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit.

The summary judgment handed down March 16 by U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel of San Jose says that D'Arrigo Bros. Co. of Salinas owes an unspecified amount of money to 3,000 workers who picked the company's broccoli, lettuce and other crops from 1996 to 2000.

The exact size of the award, which by some estimates could top $10 million, will be determined after a court review of employee pay and work records.

"That is money they owe us," said Alejandro Garcia, one of the plaintiffs in the case. He still works for D'Arrigo, earning about $16,000 a year.

"Maybe now," he said, "the company will respect the workers."

John Snell, D'Arrigo's labor relations manager, suggested the company might appeal.

"This case is far from over," Snell said.

The dispute arose over D'Arrigo's now-discontinued practice of requiring workers to report to a Salinas parking lot where they boarded vans for trips that lasted five to 50 minutes each way. D'Arrigo farms hundreds of acres in a region from north of Salinas south to Greenfield.

"Some of the workers who lived near Greenfield would drive 45 minutes to the van just to take another 45-minute drive back to the company's ranch near Greenfield," Garcia said.

In court, the company defended the practice, saying it was the best way to distribute workers to fields that required different levels of labor, depending on the day.

D'Arrigo also contended that transporting workers in company vans was safer than having people make their own way to the fields, where they would encounter a steady stream of lumbering vegetable trucks.

The worker's travel time, D'Arrigo argued, was factored into the amount it paid them for the vegetables picked each day, a compensation system known in the trade as piece rate.

But Judge Fogel noted in his ruling that the company failed to keep accurate records showing how it tracked the workers' travel and waiting times.

Fogel said companies could use a variety of pay schemes to compensate workers, even blending hourly and piece rates. However, the total amount paid must equal or exceed the state minimum wage multiplied by the hours worked during the pay period, the judge said.

The ruling was in line with the legal advice growers receive from the California Farm Bureau, said Carl Borden, an attorney with the industry trade group.

D'Arrigo changed its practice after the state Supreme Court ruling four years ago. The company now gives workers the choice of finding their own transportation to the field or taking a company van, a policy that legally absolves the company of paying wages for travel time, Strauss, the attorney for the workers, said.

Although the D'Arrigo case concerned state wage laws, it was sent to a U.S. District Court because the lawsuit also involved the federal Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers Protection Act.

Though it doesn't set a precedent, the ruling is notable because it affects one of the largest vegetable concerns in the Western United States.

D'Arrigo Bros. was founded in 1923 in Stockton by two Sicilian immigrants and has grown from 28 acres to nearly 24,600 in California and Arizona and sells goods under the Andy Boy label.

John D'Arrigo, its president, is chairman of the Western Growers Assn., an agricultural trade group whose 3,000 members grow 90% of the fresh vegetables and nearly 70% of the fresh fruit and nuts grown in California and Arizona.

For decades, the company has had a fractious relationship with the United Farm Workers.

In 1975, D'Arrigo was the target of one of the first successful union certification elections held under the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. But a contract was never reached, and the two sides have been fighting ever since. Now the UFW says it plans to use last week's ruling to demonstrate the company's lack of good faith in negotiating a contract.

"This proves it," said Efren Barajas, the union's second vice president.

The union plans to invoke the state's mandatory mediation law, which allows agricultural workers or employers to seek mediation when negotiations reach an impasse.

UFW used a similar approach to reach an agreement last month with Pictsweet Mushroom Farms' Ventura plant to end a long-running labor dispute, the first pact under the mediation law.

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