Graham dairy is sued over wages - Three migrant farm workers accuse The Graham Companies of underpaying them; the Miami Lakes company disputes the lawsuit.

 

 
(Note: And this very Senator wants the borders to be demolished ... why? So he can hire more migrant workers and get more free overtime from them?)

 

 
January 31, 2004

 

 
By Ronnie Greene and Larry Lebowitz
 
 
The Miami Herald
 
Miami, Florida
 
 
To submit a Letter to the Editor: HeraldEd@herald.com

 

Three migrant farmworkers contend [that] the influential Graham Companies systematically cheated them and other laborers of pay at the family's dairy farm near Moore Haven, according to a federal lawsuit filed in Miami this week.

The suit is notable because it targets the Miami Lakes family business of retiring U.S. Senator Bob Graham and because it is the latest sign of a Florida farmworkers' battle against wage and work abuses.

Michael Casey, a lawyer for The Graham Companies, said Friday he had not seen the lawsuit, but maintained: "The allegations are untrue. The company pays properly.''

Sen. Graham is not directly involved in the operation of Graham Farms, but he is a director of the family company that owns it, records show.

''Sen. Graham did not and has not played an active role in the management of the farms,'' Casey said.

The three laborers hope to turn their lawsuit into a class action that, their lawyers say, could involve up to 200 farmworkers employed by Graham Farms over a four-year period -- January 2000 to December 2003.

''If we prove their pay system was illegal, it wasn't just illegal for these three people, it was illegal for everybody,'' said Gregory S. Schell, a Migrant Farmworker Justice Project lawyer representing the workers, who tended to and milked cows at the farm.

MORE HOURS WORKED

Schell said the laborers typically worked 10 hours more each week than they were paid.

Putting all the workers together, he contends they lost roughly $100,000 a year in wages for each of the four years.

The suit contends laborers were sometimes paid less than minimum wage and that The Graham Companies skirted the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, the federal law outlining workers' rights.

''The defendant simply paid the agreed-upon hourly wage for eight hours per workday, regardless of the hours actually worked,'' the suit said.

"On most workdays, the plaintiffs ... worked far in excess of eight compensable hours.''

How did the alleged wage abuse happen?

Schell said the answer is simple.

''They don't keep time records,'' as required by law, Schell said. "It's remarkable to me that a company with this level of sophistication doesn't keep time records.''

Graham lawyer Casey disputed that, saying the company maintains time records for its farmworkers.

Two plaintiffs -- Reina Gomez and Doris Rios -- are citizens of El Salvador. The third, Norma Secundino, is from Mexico.

The 200 workers employed at Graham Farms some time over the four-year period were typically indigent and not fluent in English, the suit said.

POSTERS CLAIM

Beyond the wage issue, the suit contends The Graham Companies skirted federal law by failing to put up posters informing workers of their rights.

The suit filing comes at a time when there's a focus on farmworker abuse in Florida. A Herald series, Fields of Despair, published in August, reported how many farmworkers in Florida have encountered poverty pay, slum housing and criminal abuse.

In September, Sen. Graham supported a federal bill that, if passed, would help stamp out some of those abuses by granting legal status to up to 100,000 foreign farmworkers in Florida.

On Friday, Graham spokesman Paul Anderson referred all inquiries to Graham Farms.



Copyright 2004 The Miami Herald