From News-Press.com, Mary Wozniak, firstname.lastname@example.org & Janine Zeitlin, email@example.com, 21 Sept 2011.
Class action suit claims food chains reneged pay increase
Would you pay an extra penny for the tomato on your burger, sub or burrito?
Burger King, McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Subway didn’t, according to four separate class action lawsuits being filed by 16 current and former Immokalee farmworkers. The lawsuit represents at least 2,000 workers.
The workers picked tomatoes from September 2007 through October 2010, a period when the four fast food giants individually agreed to pay farmworkers a penny more per pound for the Florida tomatoes they purchased.
But the money for the three harvest seasons was never paid, and no one will tell him where it is, said the plaintiffs’ attorney, Greg Schell of the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project.
Benito Velasquez-Bahena, one of the plaintiffs, said he doesn’t understand why the agreements weren’t fulfilled.
Velasquez said he spent almost two decades as a Florida farmworker before returning to Mexico last year to be with his family.
“There are so many of us that are affected,” he said by phone from Mexico. “I’m asking for something that belongs to me. We are fighting for justice, what belongs to the workers.
The plaintiffs worked for LFC Agricultural Services, the harvesting subsidiary of Six L’s Packing Company. One of the plaintiffs also worked for Pacific Collier Fresh Company.
Schell claims the culprit appears to be the Coalition for Immokalee Workers, which negotiated the agreements with the fast-food companies. The coalition, Schell said, is encouraging the companies not to distribute the estimated $2 million owed — or 200 million pennies.
“The concern is, why has nobody paid this money, and we haven’t be able to get a good answer,” Schell said. “The growers are willing to pay the money if somebody gives it to them. The fast food companies have been uncommunicative with us. They were told by the coalition not to cooperate.”
The coalition is not a defendant in the lawsuits.
Steve Hitov, coalition attorney, provided a written response Tuesday on behalf of his clients:
“We don’t support this lawsuit, because we think it’s wrong on the facts and wrong on what it would impose. But anyone can file a lawsuit. That doesn’t mean it has any merit. We’re confident the court will make the right call on this, and we’re happy to wait until that time to make any further comment.”
In a phone interview, Hitov declined to respond further to the allegations. “We have important work to do,” he said of the coalition.
However, a letter obtained by The News-Press written by Hitov to Schell says the farmworkers were paid all the money owed, including from the previous three years, in weekly bonuses. Those payments started with the harvest season beginning November 2010 up to last May.
The money from previous years had been tracked and collected by the fast food companies, but not distributed earlier because the growers did not come on board with the agreement until November 2010, the letter said.
“If your client is currently working for one or more of the participating growers, then he is receiving the bonus payments along with the other workers,” the letter said.
But those who worked in the tomato fields from September 2007 through October 2010 will not receive the bonus because the system was not yet in place, the letter said.
The first of the lawsuits, against Burger King Corporation, was filed Wednesday in Circuit Court in Miami. Burger King signed the agreement to pay an additional penny per pound of tomatoes in 2008.
Schell said he will file the other three lawsuits in the next few days. They target:
- McDonalds Corporation, which signed the agreement in 2007
- Taco Bell Corporation, which signed the agreement in 2005
- Independent Purchasing Cooperative, which purchases produce on behalf of all Subway restaurants, which signed the agreement in 2008.
Ashlee Yingling, a spokeswoman for McDonalds, said via email the company was not aware of the lawsuit and unable to comment.
“Burger King Corp. has not been served with a lawsuit and cannot comment on the merits of the claims,” said Denise Wilson, a Burger King spokeswoman in an email.
A spokesperson for the Independent Purchasing Cooperative, a Subway franchisee-owned organization, could not be reached Wednesday.
Rob Poetsch, a Taco Bell spokesman, said the company gave the money to growers in 2007 to distribute to the workers, but in 2008 and 2009 they were unable to obtain the workers’ information.
“We were never able to get in touch with these people so there was no way to give them the money,” Poetsch said.
About $225,000 accrued in those two years, and the company and coalition agreed to donate it to the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida in February to feed Immokalee residents, Poetsch said. By 2010, he said the company was able to get the money to the workers.
“We were the first company to agree to do this and we believe it’s the right thing to do, because we want to help improve the wages and working conditions of the Immokalee workers,” he said.