Thousands of guest workers come to Virginia each year to work in landscaping and forestry, agriculture and hospitality. Amusement parks, hotels, restaurants and orchards say they couldn’t operate without help from abroad. Unfortunately, some employers take advantage of these temporary workers – failing to pay overtime or deducting expenses from their wages, but a Charlottesville judge has ruled in favor of 200 of them who took their complaints to court.
The Legal Aid Justice Center has won a $782,000 settlement on behalf of 200 guest workers who came to Virginia from Guatemala to plant pine trees across the Southeastern United States. Attorney Erin Trodden says three companies recruited them.
“And in order to get to the U.S. they had to pay the visa fees. They had to pay the plane tickets to get here, so these workers arrived in the U.S. almost $2,000 in debt," Trodden explains. "Their employers did not reimburse those fees to them, and then they didn’t pay them overtime. In some circumstances they didn’t pay them minimum wage, and there were periods of time where they didn’t get paid at all.”
Lawyers learned about the problem nearly three years ago.
“Someone from our sister program, Central Virginia Legal Aid, was doing outreach work in Tappahannock and came across these workers in a motel,” Trodden says.
Legal Aid got help from the law firm of Covington and Burling, but the defendants – Star Forestry Service, Independent Labor Service and White Pine Reforestation and Landscaping didn’t respond to the complaint or even send a lawyer to court. In a deposition, company owner Amy Spears-Thomas admitted she didn’t save any pay documents and was not a very good record keeper.
Attorney Trodden says the guest workers planted hundreds of seedlings a day, and had no alternative to the back-breaking work.
“Workers on this type of visa are particularly vulnerable to unscrupulous employers, because they’re stuck with the employer who brings them. Unlike regular employees in the state of Virginia, they can’t vote with their feet and go somewhere else.”
Now, Trodden says, the challenge is to collect from the defendants who are based in Minnesota and Arkansas, then send the money owed to the clients who have returned to Guatemala.