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Judge: 650+ farm workers entitled to know wages

Shannon Dininny, Associated Press

YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) -- A federal judge has ruled that a class of more than 650 farm workers should have had information about wages and other job conditions disclosed to them by the company that hired them.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Rice of Spokane ruled Monday that N.W. Management and Realty Service Inc. failed to register as a farm labor contractor or provide written documentation about wages and other conditions of the work.

The workers were hired to labor in two orchards near Sunnyside, about 40 miles southeast of Yakima.

The orchards are owned by John Hancock Insurance Co., which leased them to Farmland Management Services, a national farm management company with offices in Turlock, Calif., and Champaign, Ill. Farmland then subleased the orchards to N.W. Management and Realty Service, a Pasco farm management company that operates in Eastern Washington.

Rice also ruled that John Hancock and Farmland Management are liable in the case and set a July hearing to determine damages.

Telephone messages were left at all three companies seeking comment.

If you are a landowner and you are benefiting from the land by selling a crop, you're also responsible for making sure your contractors are complying with basic requirements of Washington state law, said Lori Isley, a Columbia Legal Services lawyer representing the farm workers.

"What's really important here is that the court determined the workers are entitled to these real basic and simple disclosures about what the requirements of the job are, so they don't run into problems later," she said. "We're very pleased the court has recognized the importance of this law for the farm worker community."

Several workers filed suit last July, alleging they were fired by N.W. Management in retaliation for calling police because an orchard foreman was intimidating employees by displaying and brandishing a gun. They also claimed that the company had shorted their wages and failed to document all their work.

The court approved class-action status on the latter claims in February. According to Columbia Legal Services, workers could each receive between $1,000 and $3,000 for the violations.

A November trial has been scheduled for five workers who claim they were fired in retaliation.