California-based Munger Bros. has agreed to pay $3.75 million to settle claims it mistreated and illegally fired Mexican nationals in 2017 at its blueberry farm in northwest Washington.
Some $2.96 million would be distributed to as many as 519 workers who harvested berries at the company’s Sarbanand Farms in Sumas, Wash., according to a proposed settlement filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for Western Washington.
Another $785,500 would go to the workers’ attorneys and for legal costs. Judge John Coughenour still must approve the agreement.
“Our clients are very happy with the proposed settlement. We are glad the parties worked together to reach an amicable resolution. We await Judge Coughenour’s review and, hopefully, his initial approval,” Columbia Legal Services attorney Joe Morrison said in an email Tuesday.
Munger admits no wrongdoing, but the alternative to an out-of-court settlement was risking a trial set for April. Columbia Legal Services and the Seattle law firm representing workers expected to seek damages of between $2 million and $6 million, according to court records.
In a statement, Munger said it wanted to move forward and hoped the judge will approve the settlement.
"As noted in the settlement language, we deny any liability or wrongdoing of any kind associated with the claims alleged in the suit and nothing in the agreement constitutes an admission of any wrongdoing," the company stated.
"Like all farmers, our family understands we can remain in business only if we maintain a healthy and stable workforce to grow, harvest, process and market our crops."
Munger recently reached a $3.5 million settlement with the U.S. Labor Department over its treatment of 3,200 workers at Sarbanand and its farm and packing plant in Delano, Calif. The company agreed to pay $2.5 million in back wages and a $1 million fine.
The Sumas farm, near the Canadian border, was the site of protests in 2017 after 65 workers in the U.S. on H-2A visas were fired. The workers had staged a one-day strike after a co-worker, Honesto Silva Ibarra, was taken away by ambulance.
Ibarra later died at a Seattle hospital of what officials said were natural causes. A state investigation concluded the death was not work related.
The lawsuit filed in Washington federal court alleged the 65 workers were illegally terminated and sent home, while all of the Mexican nationals brought to Sarbanand were subjected to a hostile work environment.
The fired workers will equally share $675,000, or at least $10,384 each. Unclaimed shares will be distributed to workers who filed claims.
The 519 workers, which includes the fired employees, will equally share $2.67 million, or at least $4,368 each.
The two lead plaintiffs, Barbaro Rosas and Gudalupe Tapia, will receive an additional $10,000 each, according to the settlement. The two workers helped attorneys with the case, according to court records.
The payout to attorneys equals 21% of the settlement. According to a court filing, the three attorneys who did the bulk of the work have hourly rates of between $300 and $515 and racked up fees in excess of what they settled for.
The attorneys must still contact workers to tell them about the settlement. According to a court filing by Columbia Legal Services, attorneys are trying to reach workers individually.
Attorneys are concerned that informing workers through radio and newspaper ads will make them vulnerable to criminals, according to court filings.
Columbia Legal Services said it had valid numbers for 62% of the workers, but was confident of reaching the other 38% through friends and families.
As part of the settlement, CSI Visa Processing, a Mexican business Munger used to help workers get visas, pledged not to retaliate against any of the workers involved in the class-action lawsuit.
Although the Washington Department of Labor and Industries cleared the farm in Ibarra’s death, the agency fined the company about $150,000 for missed rest breaks and late meals. On appeal, a judge halved the penalty.
As part of the settlement with the Labor Department, Munger can’t use foreign workers at its Washington or California farms for two more years.