Farm workers win dispute over pay

Farm workers win dispute over pay

Miami Herald, The (FL) - Thursday, March 5, 2009



A Homestead nursery on Monday released about $2,000 in back pay to a group of employees whose complaints prompted a protest.

Members of several immigrant and workers' advocacy organizations protested Friday in a demonstration against alleged wage theft at Power Bloom Farms, a Homestead nursery.

About 30 people gathered at the dusty crossroads of Southwest 320th Street and 217th Avenue, brandishing placards with messages like: Bosses, Don't Abuse Your Workers and Wage Theft is a Crime.

According to Jonathan Fried, executive director of We Count!, a local support group for workers, 30 Power Bloom employees complained that the nursery owed it about $2,000 in pay.

On Jan. 1, the state's minimum wage went up to $7.21 per hour. But Fried said pay stubs from Power Bloom show the nursery only started paying that amount the last week of February.

"The workers just want to be paid what the law says they need to be paid," he said.

Ryan Power, who identified himself as owner of Power Bloom, said in a telephone interview Friday that he is paying his workers the minimum wage. He added that his office door is open.

"All of my employees know that if there's a problem they can come talk to us at any time," said Power, who declined to talk further.

Still, representatives of several groups joined the demonstration against his company, including the Florida Immigrant Coalition, South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice and American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker social-justice group.

"I've seen too many stories like this, too many people working hard to support their families and losing hope day by day," said Jeanette Smith with Interfaith Worker Justice.

A recent study by Florida International University's Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy found that, between summer 2006 and January 2009, organizations like We Count! and the Community Worker Center had 97 documented cases of wage theft .

Nearly all of those cases involved construction or agricultural workers. The total amount of unpaid wages came to $109,102, according to the study.

At the demonstration were workers who said they had been cheated out of pay.

Silvia Cubides said she has picked beans and okra until her hands are raw -- and for only $3.65 for each 32-pound box she filled.

The Colombian immigrant also has worked, at $7 an hour, as a hotel housekeeper for a company, Niagara Cleaning, that she said never paid her for overtime.

She turned up Friday to show support. "I can relate to them," she said.

By Monday afternoon, Power Bloom Farms paid up.

"I feel very happy that we finally got our back pay," said employee Jose Dimas, who missed work on Friday for one of his weekly dialysis treatments.

"Everybody is relieved; we were very worried about this."

Fried said Tuesday that bosses who steal wages undermine the efforts of companies who make it a point to follow fair labor practices. The cheaters also hurt the overall economy, he added.

"This isn't the only company out there doing this," Fried said.

"We want to put those other employers on notice that we're watching them. They need to follow the law."