They came mostly from Central America. They worked long hours in the agricultural industry and were paid minimum wage.
To them, it was a lifeline: legal jobs in a thriving industry. What they didn’t know was that their employer was not paying them what they were fully entitled to for hard-earned wages.
The United States Department of Labor is suing a South Florida food packaging plant for wage theft. According to court documents filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida at the end of June, Green Bean Packers Inc. in Florida City owes 351 current and former employees nearly $1 million in back overtime pay and damages.
Beginning in 2013, the company and its owner, Thomas M. Torbert — who also owns a handful of other agricultural businesses listed at the Green Bean Packers’ address at 300 North Krome Ave. — regularly failed to fairly compensate employees for time worked beyond the 40-hour, full-time threshold established by the U.S. government. Minimum wage laws require employers to pay workers their normal pay rate plus half for all overtime hours.
In a statement recently issued to the Miami Herald, based on legal council, the company said they were previously unaware of any wrongdoing prior to inquiries from the Department of Labor.
“We have since conducted a thorough audit of our payroll practices and made the necessary corrections to ensure that we are in compliance,” the statement read.
Several of the company’s employees who are mentioned in the case spoke to the Herald under the condition of anonymity, due to fear of backlash from their employer.
The workers, who at times worked more than 100 hours per week with no days off, said they were not aware that they were entitled to overtime benefits. They were simply happy to have a job, they said.
Even though the extra hours at minimum wage allowed them to live modestly, each of 351 workers named in the lawsuit are owed money — from cents to nearly $24,000
“We need this money to live, to eat — for everything,” said one worker who is owed thousands of dollars in back pay, according to the lawsuit.
After reviewing pay documents, the Herald learned that workers were often paid by two different companies during a single pay period, yet performed the same tasks under the same roof. The first 40 hours with a portion of overtime hours were paid out by Green Bean Packers. The second check for any hours worked after were cut by another company tied to Torbert.
“It’s a description of a scenario that tends to happen quite often in certain industries in South Florida,” said Anthony M. Georges-Pierre, attorney and partner at Remer & Georges-Pierre PLLC, a firm unrelated to this case that specializes in labor and employment law. According to Georges-Pierre, it’s a common loophole used by employers to avoid paying for benefits.
Employees at Green Bean Packers thought it was odd that they were paid by two different companies while working only for one.
Wage theft is a major issue among agricultural farms in the Southeastern region of the United States, according to a Department of Labor Press Release. Of the 483 companies investigated over a 15-month period beginning in January 2017, 78 percent had violations. Employers owed $1.4 million in back wages to 3,400 workers. In 2017, the Department of Labor collected more than $270 million in back wages nationally — the second highest amount ever, according to the Department.
Levis Torres, a workers’ rights advocate from WeCount!, an organization that advocates for immigrants in the Homestead area, said the Green Bean Packers lawsuit doesn’t surprise him. Regardless of immigration status, workers rarely complain to authorities and employers in the area often exploit its immigrant work force, he said.
“Those who have legal documents to work are fearful to lose their job,” said Torres. “They prefer to stay silent and make the little they earn — they just take it.”
Calling it a major victory, one worker listed on the suit told the Herald that they were pleased by the U.S. government’s decision to pursue this case on their behalf. Green Bean Packers and its owner Thomas M. Torbert have agreed to pay back their employees $922,255.05 by Sept. 30, 2021.
With an agreement in place, the company said it is ready to move on from the matter.
“As a company deeply committed to ensuring that all of our workplace policies are upheld in accordance with the law, we are pleased to have reached this resolution, which provides our employees with appropriate wages.”