Workers seek back pay from Snohomish blueberry farm

SNOHOMISH — Lourdes Margarito and dozens of people who planted blueberries on a farm here last fall say they haven’t been paid for their work.

A class-action complaint has been filed on behalf of about 35 immigrant farm workers in King County Superior Court against Golden Eagle Farms. The Canadian berry-grower owns hundreds of acres in the Snohomish River valley.

The complaint alleges Golden Eagle hired an unlicensed, unbonded labor contractor who failed to pay workers wages they were owed in 2014 or follow labor laws, such as keeping employment records.

The contractor, Father Like Son Farm Labor Supply, and owner Alfredo Garcia Jr. did not have the proper license or surety bonds to hire workers, a state Department of Labor &Industries official said.

Golden Eagle’s attorney, Adam Belzberg, of the Seattle law firm Stoel Rives, said the farm gave Garcia money to pay the workers. He wasn’t sure if the farm checked the contractor’s credentials.

“This guy ripped everybody off and split,” Belzberg said. “The farm and the workers are pretty much the victim of a dishonest contractor.”

Now the farm can’t find the contractor, Belzberg said.

And Margarito, 26, of Everett, and her coworkers still haven’t been paid.

Their Wenatchee-based attorney, Joe Morrison, of Columbia Legal Services, said Golden Eagle is liable for paying the wages because it failed to check the contractor’s credentials before the workers were hired.

The class-action complaint describes the majority of the employees as immigrants with limited income, education, understanding of the U.S. court system and English-language proficiency. Many communicate primarily in Spanish or Mixtec, a dialect.

Morrison declined to discuss the immigration status of his clients because whether they were working legally in the U.S. is not relevant to the court case.

“Anyone is entitled to these protections under the law,” he said.

Speaking in Spanish, Margarito said she started working at the farm in late September. She and at least 20 others from Snohomish County planted blueberries from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. After working all day in the fields, Margarito went to a second job, washing dishes at a restaurant until midnight.

The native of the southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico, said the schedule was exhausting but she needed the work. She is raising a son, 7, and a daughter, 1, in Everett.

Margarito said the workers were verbally offered 10-hour shifts at $12 an hour.

They were paid several days late for work in September, with cash in envelopes with names handwritten on the front, she said.

The workers say they haven’t been paid wages for October. Each person is owed about $650, according to their attorneys.

At first, Margarito and her coworkers were calling a phone number they’d been given to ask about their pay. They were told to call back “mañana.”

After a few weeks, the phone apparently had been disconnected, leaving the workers with no way to get the money they are owed, Margarito said. She was able to get by with her other paycheck but was out the money she’d spent on child care while she worked at the farm.

Margarito counts herself lucky. Many of her coworkers were completely broke.

Golden Eagle Farms, which owns thousands of acres across the state, is part of Aquilini Investment Group, a multibillion- dollar conglomerate in British Columbia. The Aquilini family owns the Vancouver Canucks hockey team.

Citing the Washington Farm Labor Contractor Act, Margarito and the other workers are petitioning Golden Eagle for damages, unpaid wages, attorney fees and $500 per violation for each person.

“Obviously, everyone deserves to get paid for their work,” said Morrison, the workers’ lawyer. “The goal is not only that they should get paid, but also to make sure these contractors are following the law.”

University of Washington Professor Jacob Vigdor researches immigration policy and provides expert testimony in legal cases about immigrant labor.

Those seeking work in the underground economy, he said, learn through word of mouth which businesses will hire them without checking their paperwork. Others get fake credentials, such as a Social Security number and an identification card.

Once they get hired, workers are entitled to protection under U.S. labor law, regardless of their immigration status.

“Otherwise, the message would be if you hire these workers, you can treat them as badly as you want to,” Vigdor said.

Federal law requires employers to ensure employees are legally eligible to work in the U.S. There are penalties for knowingly hiring people without the proper documents.

But enforcement, and whether to punish employers that break the rules, is a point of “perpetual debate” because the extra responsibility adds to the cost of doing business, Vigdor said.

It’s often less expensive for employers to hire people who are not authorized to work and pay the fine if they get caught than it is to operate in accordance with labor law, Vigdor said.

Like Golden Eagle, many large farms hire a middleman, such as a labor contractor, to recruit and hire workers. The farm can then look the other way while the contractor skirts the law, Vigdor said.

Some pay workers in cash and don’t keep employment records, making it hard to gather evidence to prosecute them in the U.S. court system.

There is a federal visa program that allows foreign nationals to work agricultural jobs seasonally in the U.S. But many businesses don’t bother with the program because it’s costly to meet the requirements, Vigdor said.

“The trouble is it’s just cheaper to hire undocumented workers,” he said. “It’s quick and easy. But it’s not legal.”

Margarito now is working in a restaurant. She hopes Golden Eagle Farm will pay the 35 workers what they’re owed.

“That money will help them a lot,” she said.

Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; Twitter: @AmyNileReports.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

A big decision for Boeing’s next CEO: Is it time for a new plane?

As Boeing faces increased competition from Airbus, the company is expected to appoint a new CEO by the end of the year.

A Mukilteo Speedway sign hangs at an intersection along the road in Mukilteo. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Mukilteo Speedway name change is off to a bumpy start

The city’s initial crack at renaming the main drag got over 1,500 responses. Most want to keep the name.

Two workers walk past a train following a press event at the Lynnwood City Center Link Station on Friday, June 7, 2024, in Lynnwood, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Trains up and running on Lynnwood Link — but no passengers quite yet

Officials held an event at the Lynnwood station announcing the start of “pre-revenue” service. Passengers still have to wait till August.

Nedra Vranish, left, and Karen Thordarson, right browse colorful glass flowers at Fuse4U during Sorticulture on Friday, June 7, 2024, in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
A promenade through Everett’s popular Sorticulture garden festival

Check out a gallery of the festival’s first day.

Left to right, Everett Pride board members Ashley Turner, Bryce Laake, and Kevin Daniels pose for a photo at South Fork Bakery in Everett, Washington on Sunday, May 26, 2024. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Second Everett Pride aims for even bigger rainbow of festivities

Organizers estimated about 3,000 people attended the first block party in Everett. This year, they’re aiming for 10,000.

HRT Rescue Technician Andy Toyota gives the thumbs-up to crew members in the Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue helicopter shortly before takeoff during an interagency training session held by Northwest Regional Aviation on Thursday, June 13, 2024, at the Arlington Airport in Arlington, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
From around state, authorities simulate ‘terrorist attack’ in Arlington

Teams from King County, Snohomish County and elsewhere converged for a multi-faceted scenario Thursday at the Arlington Municipal Airport.

Two couples walk along Hewitt Avenue around lunchtime on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022 in Lynnwood, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Everett businesses say it’s time the city had its own Chamber of Commerce

The state’s seventh-largest city hasn’t had a chamber since 2011. After 13 years, businesses are rallying for its return.

The I-5, Highway 529 and the BNSF railroad bridges cross over Union Slough as the main roadways for north and southbound traffic between Everett and Marysville. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Highway 529 squeeze starts now between Everett, Marysville

Following a full closure for a night, starting late Sunday, Highway 529 will slim down to two lanes for months near the Snohomish River Bridge.

5 Snohomish County sisters accused of $1M fraud scheme

For two years, the women used online return postage to get gift cards, then returning the physical items to a brick-and-mortar store, charges say.

FILE — Michael Whitaker, Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, testifies before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Feb. 6, 2024. Whitaker told a Senate panel, on Thursday, June 13, 2024, that changes are being made to the agency’s oversight of Boeing, including conducting more safety inspections. (Anna Rose Layden/The New York Times)
Boeing discloses new quality problem on 787 Dreamliner jets

The issue affects jets built in South Carolina that have yet to be delivered, the company said in a statement.

Alvin Cooper (Photo provided by Marysville School District)
After allegations, Marysville schools’ HR director resigns

Last week, the district’s finance director Lisa Gonzales publicly called for the school board to put Alvin Cooper on leave, citing mismanagement.

Leslie Davis, left, and Lyndsay Lamb, twin sister stars of HGTV's "Unsellable Houses" and 2004 Snohomish High School graduates, donated a private design session to the school's auction fundraiser for their 20-year reunion. (Photo provided)
Got $2,000? Bid on face time with HGTV’s ‘Unsellable Houses’ twins

The sisters are offering up themselves in a fundraiser for their Class of 2004 Snohomish High 20-year reunion.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.