From NapleNews.com, Laura Layden, 20 Sept 2011.
Nearly a year ago, the state’s tomato growers signed a historic agreement that paved the way for Florida farmworkers to get a long-awaited raise.
The raise has been slow to reach the pockets of workers, but this fall the extra money should get there more easily.
“When the money flows to us, we are paying the money out,” said Reggie Brown, manager of the Florida Tomato Committee, a cooperative that represents more than 90 percent of the state’s tomato growers.
Since 2005, a handful of restaurants and retailers, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Yum Brands (Taco Bell) and Subway, have agreed to pay an extra penny-per-pound to boost farmworker wages. The agreements were struck by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers as part of its campaign to provide a more “fair,” or living, wage. The farmworker advocacy group’s latest target is Publix Super Markets.
For more than three years, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, an agricultural cooperative, prohibited its members from passing along the extra penny per pound, saying it was illegal to do so because of anti-trust laws. In November that changed when its members shook hands with the coalition and signed an agreement they described as nothing short of historic.
Thirteen growers – representing about 90 percent of Florida’s tomato industry – agreed to pass the extra money along. Two of those growers, Six Ls and Pacific Tomato Growers, started paying the additional penny in the spring. The other growers will follow in November when farmworkers return to the fields to pick.
“It took a little time to set the wheels in motion,” Brown said.
There are 32 pounds in a bucket of tomatoes, so a penny more per pound equates to 32 cents more for each bucket – for a total of 82 cents a bucket.
The extra penny appears as a separate line item on the worker’s paycheck, Brown explained. It will only be paid when the grower is selling product to participating retailers and restaurants so it won’t appear on every check every week, he explained.
“There is a time delay factor in that money rolling back through,” Brown said.
The money goes to hourly migrant workers who get a pro-rated share of the extra penny based on their weekly earnings, he said.
Because of the time delay in getting the extra penny from the retailers and restaurants, some of the money has been escrowed by growers from the spring season and will be handed out to farmworkers when they return this fall, Brown explained.
“It will work better when it is consistently applied, quite honestly,” he said. “Last year was a start-up process to get it in place.”
The money generated by the penny-per-pound program is audited by an outside company to make sure it reaches workers, said Jordan Buckley with Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida, an organization that works closely with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.
Initially, when Taco Bell and McDonald’s agreed to pay the extra penny per pound, growers distributed the extra penny. But then the Florida Tomato Exchange stepped in, banning its members from passing along the extra wages and threatening to fine growers who did.
When the growers refused to distribute the extra penny to the farmworkers, the money went into an escrow fund that grew to $2 million, Buckley said. The escrow fund has been emptied out, with some money going to charities and some money going to farmworkers last spring when Pacific Tomato and Six Ls, two of the state’s largest tomato growers, started paying the extra penny-per-pound, he said.
Greg Schell, an attorney with the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project in Lake Worth, said if there was money in an escrow account it didn’t reach the farmworkers who were entitled to it.
The money should have gone to the workers who were actually in the fields at the time the extra penny was collected, from 2007 to the spring of 2010, he said. Schell is representing 10 farmworkers who worked during those seasons and never saw any additional wages.
He questions whether there was ever an escrow account and whether the retailers and restaurants really paid the extra penny when growers were refusing to pass it along.
“It wasn’t paid,” he said. “I promise you.”
He’s considering taking legal action against four of the participating restaurants, Taco Bell, Burger King, McDonald’s and Subway, to get his clients paid.
Rob Poetsch, a spokesman for Taco Bell Corp., said his company did put money in an escrow account.
“We remain committed to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their cause and will continue to provide the Florida tomato pickers with the additional penny per pound,” he said.
The coalition’s agreements with retailers and restaurants are confidential, so Schell is not able to review them.
“Do what you promised to do,” Schell said. “That’s all we ask. No more, no less.”
He said he doesn’t want to file a lawsuit, but so far the fast-food restaurants haven’t cooperated.
“I don’t care if the tooth fairy pays it,” Schell said. “Just pay the money.”
Tracy X. Miguel contributed to this story.
Connect with Laura Layden at www.naplesnews.com/staff/laura_layden.
Source and additional photos: NapleNews.com, “Show them the penny: Farmworkers slowly getting extra tomato money” by Laura Layden, 20 Sept 2011.