Judge: Georgia company must pay foreign workers $11.8 million

A federal judge this week ordered a Georgia forestry contractor to pay $11.8 million to Guatemalan and Mexican guest workers who said they were cheated out of wages while they planted trees for the company.

That judgment against Franklin-based Eller & Sons Trees Inc. is the largest court award of its kind for such guest workers, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represented the plaintiffs in the case.

Eller & Sons filed court papers, denying the guest workers’ allegations. An attorney who represented the company said the cost of the lawsuit forced it out of business a few years ago and that the principal owner, Jerry Eller, filed for bankruptcy.

“Entire villages in Guatemala were dependent upon Jerry Eller and Eller & Sons for, frankly, their livelihood,” said Larry Stine, an attorney who represented Eller & Sons. “The net result of this lawsuit is… they put the employer out of work.”

The class action lawsuit covered about 4,000 guest workers who worked for the company between 1999 and 2008, according to the SPLC. The plaintiffs alleged the company did not pay them a prevailing wage for their labor or the federal minimum wage as required by U.S. labor laws.

“The court sent a strong and clear message in this case that businesses employing guest workers will be held accountable if they abuse or mistreat guest workers,” said Jim Knoepp, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC.

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