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July 2009, Volume 15, Number 3

New York, Colorado, Oregon

The New York Assembly approved the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act (S 2247 and AB 1867) in June 2009, but the bill stalled in the Senate on a 31-31 tie vote. If approved, the bill would have extended unemployment insurance to workers on smaller farms, required farmers to provide at least a day of rest a week for the workers they employ, required overtime wages for hours worked beyond eight a day, and extended collective bargaining rights to farm workers.

Backyard Farms of Madison, Maine has been producing vine-ripened tomatoes in hydroponic greenhouses since 2007; one 24-acre greenhouse covers a million square feet, making it the largest single building in Maine. Owned by Devonshire Investors of Boston, a private equity division of Fidelity Investments, Backyard expected to employ 175 full-time local workers in summer 2009.

Vermont's 1,000 dairy farms are hiring more migrants. One study estimated that 40 percent of the hired workers employed on the state's dairies were born outside the US. Vermont farmers say their workers earn up to $35,000 a year and receive housing.

Colorado. A federal judge in May 2009 ordered farm labor contractors Moises and Maria Rodriguez to pay five unauthorized workers $1.5 million each for holding the workers in near Hudson in Weld county in debt bondage. The workers were employed on the 2,000-acre Grant Family Farms, an organic operation that said it knew nothing about the debt bondage— but Grant paid the workers $2,000 each.

ICE agents investigated Rodriguez and filmed the housing, which had been deemed inhabitable in 2004. The US Department of Labor denied Moises Rodriguez an FLC license in 2004, prompting Maria Rodriguez to apply for an FLC license. ICE charged the Rodriguezes with harboring and transporting illegal immigrants and, after serving a year in jail, they were deported to Mexico in 2006.

In April 2006, Colorado Legal Services filed a civil suit against the Rodriguezes and Grant Family Farms. Grant filed for bankruptcy because of drought and settled. The Rodriguezes did not contest the charges, resulting in the $1.5 million default judgments for each of the five plaintiffs. However, with the Rodriguezes in Mexico, the men may not collect.

KUSA-TV in Denver reported on June 22, 2009 that more US workers are applying for the jobs posted by farmers seeking certification to hire H-2A workers— 1,800 US workers applied for 726 H-2A jobs in the first quarter of 2009. Organic vegetable farmer Jason Condon reported that he received 38 responses to a listing of two jobs on Craigslist.

Eurofresh. Eurofresh, a 318-acre greenhouse producer of tomatoes and cucumbers in remote Willcox and Snowflake, Arizona, filed for bankruptcy in April 2009, citing $300 million in debts. Eurofresh, which had sales of about $150 million in 2008, said that disease problems, tomato chlorotic dwarf viroid, reduced production in 2006, and that it had problems recruiting workers for its $9 an hour jobs. In 2007, Eurofresh bussed refugees from Tucson to Wilcox.

Since July 2006, ICE has been investigating Eurofresh for hiring unauthorized workers, and DOL has been investigating Eurofresh for violating H-2A program regulations since July 2008. However, Eurofresh was not affected by Arizona's employer sanctions law, which went into effect January 1, 2008— no employers have lost business licenses under the state law.

Oregon. A law enacted in June 2009, SB 519a, prohibits employers from disciplining workers who opt out of employer-sponsored meetings aimed at communicating the employer's position on religious and political matters, including meetings about union organizing. Employees who opt out of such meetings and are disciplined can sue their employers for injunctive relief, reinstatement and back pay, as well as treble damages and attorneys' fees.

Felisa Cardona, "Fields of fear for Colorado illegal farm laborers, Denver Post, May 17, 2009. Wilson Ring, "Vermont dairy farms count on illegal immigrants," AP, May 13, 2009.