Yakima County farmworkers file lawsuit claiming H-2A program violated

Two Yakima County farmworkers have filed a class-action lawsuit against Mercer Canyons in federal court, alleging the Horse Heaven Hills farm violated some requirements of the federal H-2A guest worker program.

Columbia Legal Services and Schroeter Goldmark & Bender of Seattle brought the lawsuit on behalf of Jose Amador and Bacilio Ruiz. They say more than 150 more workers could be affected.

Amador, of Grandview, claims he and two family members were told no work was available when they went to Mercer Canyon's main office in Alderdale in March of last year, according to court documents.

He contends available jobs on the farm should have gone to area residents, instead of workers imported from other countries as part of the federal guest worker program.

Ruiz, who worked as a vineyard laborer for Mercer Canyons in 2012, claims he should have been paid $12 an hour for some work that he wasn't, according to court documents.

Ruiz also contends he was not asked back in 2013, as required by the guest worker program, but did end up working for the farm.

The lawsuit asks for triple damages of up to $25,000 for each farmworker. It also asks the court to award any unpaid wages as well as twice the amount of unpaid wages as damages.

Rob Mercer told the Herald in a statement that the farm used the H-2A visa program for the first time last year to hire 19 workers for specific vineyard tasks.

The federal H-2A program is the only legal way for farms to employ foreign workers to help harvest Washington's labor-intensive crops. More farmers have been using the costly, cumbersome program because of statewide labor shortages.

Farmers who use the program have to pay foreign workers a set wage, which was $12 an hour last year. But they also have to pay any domestic workers who do the same jobs as those foreign workers $12 an hour, said Dan Fazio, director of the Washington Farm Labor Association.

Employers also have to provide transportation to and from the U.S. and housing for foreign workers.

Nationwide recruiting is done as part of the federal program, Fazio said. Farmers also must pay for travel and housing for any U.S. farmworkers who come into the state to work the exact same jobs as the guest workers.

Mercer Canyons complied with all applicable laws, Mercer said. The farm worked closely with the state Employment Security Department and the U.S. Department of Labor to ensure all the legal and appropriate steps and procedures were followed.

"Mercer Canyons Inc. has always striven to do the right thing for our employees, our customers and our community," he said. "We put a lot of effort into and take great pride in being a positive influence in the industry that we serve."

They were surprised to see the lawsuit filed, he said.

"We will be working to resolve it," he said. "The fact is we were in the process of providing the information requested when the lawsuit was filed, but the filing took place anyway, without all of the facts and information.

"We need to be thinking about ways to improve our food industry, making it more efficient, more cost effective and more sustainable for the world we live in," he said. "Spending time and resources on baseless lawsuits developed around a highly complicated legal visa program doesn't do anybody (except the lawyers) any good."

Lori Isley, an attorney representing the farmworkers, told the Herald that Columbia Legal Services stands by the allegations made in the complaint.

They are confident that Mercer Canyons failed to tell its own work force and people within the community about the availability of $12-an-hour jobs for the season, she said.

Columbia Legal Services is a nonprofit that provides legal services for low-income individuals.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com