By KEVIN WALKER
FENNVILLE, Mich. — A group of migrant farm workers has settled with a blueberry farmer on Michigan’s west side in a dispute over pay, despite the fact that the larger group of workers was denied class action status.
According to multiple reports, more than 300 migrant workers have settled with Blue Star Farms, a blueberry farm in Allegan County, for $200,000. Each worker is expected to receive about $300. Blue Star Farms has denied any wrongdoing.
The legal matter started in the summer of 2016, when Migrant Legal Aid, based in Grand Rapids, sued Blue Star Farms on behalf of some seasonal farm workers. According to a court document, the plaintiffs were Ricardo Martinez and Yolanda Garrido. In the summer of 2017, a court denied the plaintiffs’ attempt to include other migrant workers in the lawsuit. Despite this, Blue Star Farms owner and manager Anthony Marr eventually settled with a larger group of workers. It’s not clear why and Marr did not respond to a request for a comment on the case.
In August 2016 the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Dept. of Labor(DOL) completed an investigation of Blue Star Farms and its procedures for paying its seasonal and migrant workers. The investigation found no violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act(FLSA) minimum wage provisions during the time that was investigated.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, who’d filed their complaint a couple months before, then filed an amended complaint against Blue Star Farms. The workers’ allegations revolved around a period when Blue Star was transitioning from a manual system of accounting for workers’ production and an automated system.
The workers were paid by the bucket for their blueberry picking, which was done by hand. According to a June 2017 motion, up to and including the 2013 season, Blue Star manually calculated payroll for its harvesters by weighing pails, recording the weight, calculating payment, recording workers’ hours, and – according to defendant Blue Star – adjusting wages to meet minimum wage if necessary. From August 2013 on, Blue Star used an automated computer payment system, which employs a barcode scanner and scale to identify worker badges and weigh blueberry pails for each harvester.
The scanner also recorded the number of hours worked by checking the workers in and out and recording their breaks. Blue Star said the software adjusts the workers’ wages to minimum wage if the price per pound generates a wage less than minimum wage for the relevant pay period.
Once the DOL found no violations of the workers’ rights vis-à-vis the FLSA, the amended claim alleged violations of the Agricultural Worker Protection Act in that Blue Star failed to make, keep and preserve accurate payroll records and pay stubs of plaintiffs and other workers as required; and failed to pay plaintiffs and other workers all wages when owed.
Plaintiffs Martinez and Garrido also claimed that Blue Star violated other rules, including not following field sanitation regulations and not employing a registered farm labor contractor as required. The judge in the case, Robert Jonker, denied the motion to grant class status, saying among other things, that there was no written evidence – such as affidavits – other migrant workers were interested in participating in a class action lawsuit.
Migrant Legal Aid did not respond to a request for comment on this story.