FRESNO, Calif. (CN) - Two California farm businesses were intentionally excluded from benefits of a state law to punish them for their labor disputes with the United Farm Workers, the growers claim in Federal Court.
Gerawan Farming and Fowler Packing Co. sued the state on Friday, claiming that exemptions in Assembly Bill 1513 violate their rights to equal protection. The United Farm Workers is not a party to the case.
David Schwarz, attorney for Gerawan and Fowler, told Courthouse News the intent of the legislation "was to carve out and punish two growers targeted by the UFW."
"The effect is to deprive their employees of the benefits promised to other farmworkers in this state. All of this was done at the behest of a politically influential union as the price of their support of this bill," Schwarz said.
AB 1513 was signed into law on Oct. 10, 2015, and took effect on Jan. 1. The bill essentially rewrote the rules governing payment of piece-rate compensation in California.
It requires employees to be paid for rest and recovery periods and other nonproductive time at or above specified minimum hourly rates, separately from any piece-rate compensation.
The law, written by Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, is intended to ensure that employees who get paid by the mile driven, by the piece produced, or by the fruit piece picked have paid meal and rest periods.
The law includes a safe harbor provision for employers who could face liability for not properly paying their piece-rate workers for recovery and rest periods in the past. Employers have a grace period in which to pay back wages to workers for nonproductive time. In return, they will be protected from lawsuits for past failure to pay, potentially sparing them from far higher penalties.
Although most growers can take advantage of the safe harbor provision, Gerawan and Fowler say they were intentionally carved out of the legislation.
"The ostensible purpose of AB 1513 was to insure that workers were 'made whole' promptly and to cause the resolution of pending wage and hour class actions by minimizing the risk of crippling penalty judgments caused by these litigations. As enacted, AB 1513 deliberately excluded Fowler and Gerawan," the complaint states.
The two Fresno County growers say they are defending themselves in class actions based on nonproductive time wage and hour claims, but are not allowed to apply for the law's so-called "Penalty Relief Plan," like other growers in the state.
"In essence, the Legislature created an amnesty program for an entire class of California employers facing wage and hour class action suits, except for Fowler and Gerawan," the complaint states.
The targeting was not accidental, the growers say, as several carve-out dates in the legislation single out Gerawan and Fowler.
For example, the safe harbor does not apply to any nonproductive wage and hour claim that was asserted in court before March 1, 2014 - which excludes Gerawan, because it was sued by the UFW about three weeks before that cutoff date.
The legislation "was reverse-engineered via a last minute legislative 'gut and amend' designed to punish Fowler and Gerawan. The targeting was in response to demands by the United Farm Workers of America that these growers be excluded from AB 1513's 'safe harbor' provisions as the price for the UFW's non-opposition to this legislation," according to the complaint.
The UFW has been in a longstanding feud with Gerawan over unionization and has had a series of labor disputes with Fowler Packing. An attorney for the union is among the attorneys listed on class action lawsuits filed against both growers.
"While the UFW now publicly claims credit for the passage of AB 1513, it does not mention its role in carving out Fowler and Gerawan - and their employees - from the legislation, or the reasons behind its demand that these two growers be singled out for special punishment," the growers say.
They claim that Assemblyman Williams acknowledged that excluding them from the bill's protection "was part of a 'pact' to keep the UFW from opposing the measure."
Purposefully targeting them for punishment also puts their employees at a disadvantage by stripping them of the benefits of the law, the growers say.
"Unlike workers who might obtain prompt payment of back wages by employers who opt for the protections afforded under AB 1513's amnesty program, the workers represented by UFW's general counsel in these class actions obtain no protection as a result of this 'pact' between the UFW and the Legislature," the complaint states.
Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, said that AB 1513 "was passed under the cover of darkness and in the final hours of session without any discussion and we all know why. It was rammed through to hide the fact that Fowler Packing, Gerawan Farming and other companies were unfairly targeted by the UFW and their cronies in the Legislature."
Patterson said the bill "shredded the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under law and was passed by the legislators who swore to protect that sacred right. It is another example of the consequences of dictatorial, one-party rule."
Gerawan and Fowler declaratory judgment that the provisions exempting them from the benefits of the law are unconstitutional, and a permanent injunction against enforcement.
Assemblyman Williams did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday. Nor did the UFW or the state's labor agencies.
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