SACRAMENTO – Last month, the California Labor Commissioner’s Office (LCO) issued citations and penalties in excess of $1.9 million against a Parlier-based farm labor contractor and two growers, including one in Kingsburg, for wage theft violations beginning in September 2018.
According to an Aug. 29 press release from the Department of Industrial Relations (DIR), three local labor firms were cited for wage theft and other infractions involving 356 workers. This includes farm labor contractor (FLC) M.G. Luna, Inc. of Parlier, Willems Farms of Kingsburg and Madera Persimmon Growers Inc. of Madera. The total amount of citations and penalties was $1,926,531.
ON THE HOOK
In the press release, Labor Commissioner Lilia Garcia Brower said the agricultural industry has laws that hold growers responsible for unpaid wages – regardless of the actions of their labor contractors.
“In this case, the growers who contracted with M.G. Luna (Willems Farms and Madera Persimmon Growers) will pay the owed wages to workers,” Garcia Brower said. According to the release, the LCO initiated its investigation in September 2019.
Paola Laverde, public information officer in the DIR’s Office of External Affairs, confirmed that both growers are on the hook for Luna’s wage theft.
“Growers need to do their due diligence when hiring a FLC,” Laverde said.
The California Secretary of State (SOS) suspended Luna’s business license Aug. 2, 2021. The Franchise Tax Board is listed as the agency that initiated the suspension.
MULTIPLE WAGE CLAIMS
A wage claim search on the DIR’s site shows that since May 10, 2019 – the earliest date returned on the search – Luna has been named as a defendant in wage claim cases 50 times. Willems has been named eight times; Madera Persimmon, four times.
In an email to the Times, Laverde said the LCO’s citations involved wages, unpaid wages and premiums beginning Sept. 9, 2018. She said Willems and Madera Persimmon appealed their citations and an appeals hearing is scheduled for November. Peter Beckman is the lawyer for Madera Persimmon. He confirmed his client is appealing the citations.
SOS lists Maria Guadalupe Luna, of Parlier, as the owner of Luna. According to the DIR press release, the LCO cited Luna personally for $1,140,720 for waiting time penalties, $191,943 for minimum wage violations, and $71,325 in interest for infractions involving 223 workers. The release notes that Luna hired workers to pick berries on her own farm but did not pay the workers.
Madera Persimmon was cited $75,120 for waiting time penalties, $6,273 for minimum wage violations and $2,230 in interest for cases involving 25 workers. Willems, Gayle A. Willems and Paul E. Willems, both trustees of the Willems Family Trust, were cited $334,080 for waiting time penalties, $28,568 for claims involving 108 workers.
Neal E. Costanzo is the attorney for the city of Parlier. Constanzo told the Times that Parlier did not have any criminal or civil investigations involving Luna at this time. The Times emailed Paul Willems for comment but did not receive a response.
NOT AN ISOLATED INCIDENT
This case is not an isolated incident involving wage theft. Earlier this year, the LCO reached a $1.47 million settlement over wage theft involving five poultry processors in Los Angeles.
According to the Apr. 26 DIR press release, the settlement stemmed from a 2021 decision involving workers who were paid by the piece to debone chicken legs in processing facilities in East Los Angeles and La Puente. The workers were not given paid rest breaks, were not properly paid for overtime and only received pay for when they were physically working. Legally, they should have received compensation for time spent waiting for the chickens to arrive and for the deboned chickens to be removed.