Georgia farm to settle lawsuit brought by Mexican, Guatemalan workers

A large Vidalia onion farm south of Atlanta has agreed to pay more than $100,000 to settle a federal lawsuit alleging it underpaid dozens of its Guatemalan and Mexican guest workers.

Georgia Legal Services, which represented the plaintiffs, alleged Metter-based Hendrix Produce paid its workers below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and did not reimburse them for travel expenses as required by law.

Hendrix, which hired a contractor to manage its laborers, denied it underpaid them but agreed to change its hiring practices and employ any of the plaintiffs who request to work during the next two years. Of the settlement amount, $63,872 will go to a trust account to benefit the plaintiffs. And $38,315 will be paid to Georgia Legal Services to cover attorney’s fees and costs.

“While Hendrix Produce believes that these workers were appropriately compensated under the law and the contract,” George Rountree, an attorney for the farm, said in an email, “it and the labor contractor agreed that settlement at a much lower number than claimed by the plaintiffs was the best course given the likelihood of protracted litigation and the time and costs that it would encompass.”

“Hendrix Produce is relieved to have gotten this litigation behind it so it will not be a distraction to its farming operations, and looks forward to continuing to provide Georgia produce to consumers around the world.”

At the heart of the lawsuits is a federal guest worker program with a troubled history in Georgia’s $71.1 billion agricultural industry, the state’s largest. Several other Georgia farms have paid tens of thousands of dollars in recent years to settle similar lawsuits involving complaints connected to the H-2A program.

“It’s a shame that practices like this keep coming to light, and it’s unfortunate that it takes an attorney to get fair pay for farmworkers,” Dawson Morton, the lead attorney for the Farmworker Rights Division of Georgia Legal Services, said in a prepared statement. “With so many farmworkers, there are many who go without counsel and without fair pay.”