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California Court Approves Taylor Farms Wage and Hour Settlement

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Food processing workers waited up to 8 years for their money

Sacramento, CAOn November 2, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California approved an agreement to settle Del Carmen Pena v. Taylor Farms Pacific Inc. The workers allege that Taylor Farms failed to pay them for time spent "donning and doffing" equipment; provide them with rest and meal breaks; and issue paychecks in a timely manner. All of these violate the wage and hour requirements of California labor law.  

The Court refused to approve a very similar proposal in August 2019. The reasons offered for the denial appear to focus on the Court’s need for further information in order to discharge its obligations under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP), rather than specific reservations about the adequacy or fairness of the offer.

Two lessons emerge from this saga. First, workers must know their rights in order to enforce them. Second, worker advocates must take care to educate the wider community about the realities of work for those who do some of the hardest and worst paid of work.

California wage and hour claims

In this lawsuit, first filed in 2012 in the San Joaquin County Superior Court, Maria Del Carmen Pena and other workers made eight claims against Taylor Farms. Taylor Farms allegedly failed to:   Not all counts survived the intervening eight years of litigation, but the lawsuit serves as a guide to the tools workers have to seek redress through the court system for violations of wage laws. Four provisions deserve particular attention because they are the basic foundations of workers’ rights.

Basic workers’ rights -- a brief refresher

Under Labor Code section 204, hourly workers have the right to be paid twice a month on predetermined days. The first paycheck should be for the first half of the month, and the second paycheck should be for the second half. The federal Fair Labor Standards Act makes it clear that the time necessary to put on or take off essential equipment must be counted as paid time.

Under Labor Code section 510(a), eight hours of labor constitutes a day’s work. Any work in excess of eight hours in one workday and any work in excess of 40 hours in any one workweek and the first eight hours worked on the seventh day of work in any one workweek must be compensated at the rate of no less than one and one-half times the regular rate of pay for an employee. Any work in excess of 12 hours in one day must be compensated at the rate of no less than twice the employee’s regular rate of pay.

There are exceptions to both these basic rules for “white collar” workers and independent contractors, but only if those workers meet very specific requirements. Many California wage and hour lawsuits focus on these exceptions, but this does not appear to have been an issue in Carmen Del Pena.

Under California Labor Code sections 226.7 and 512 employers must offer workers meal and rest breaks. Both must be “duty-free,” periods -- an employer cannot ask an hourly worker to be “on-call” while on a rest break, for example. Rest breaks are paid time, although meal breaks need not be.

Finally, under California Labor Code section 226, workers have the right to itemized pay stubs that detail:
  • gross wages earned;
  • total hours worked;
  • all deductions;
  • net wages earned; and
  • the dates for which the employee is paid.
This minimal transparency is essential so that workers can make sure that they are being paid correctly. Enforcement of these Labor Code provisions falls largely on the shoulders of educated and watchful workers.

News for the court about work in food production and processing

Just as workers need to know their basic employment rights, the delay in the settlement approval also makes clear that judges and the court system may need some education about the realities of work in industries like food production and processing.

The settlement proposals of August 2019 and November 2020 are remarkably similar. The rejected 2019 proposal called for a total of $5.3 million, to be allocated among several classes and subclasses of workers. The approved order of November 2020 called for the same amount of money among roughly the same group of employees. The obvious question, at this point, is why could approval not have happened a year ago.

Some of these workers have waited as long as eight years for their money.

The Court apparently finally got what it needed. Hidden in the dense legal language about Rule 23 of the FRCP are these conclusions:
  • The plaintiffs assert relatively small individual claims, which do not make individual litigation attractive or sustainable;
  • Many class members are non-native speakers of English who lack the resources to finance and direct individual lawsuits; and
  • The court is aware of no other more attractive alternative methods of resolving this dispute.
Is this really news? If so, worker advocates may need to be more mindful of the challenges they face in sharing information about the nature of low-wage work.


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