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Crawfish workers sue former employer

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Posted at 11:08 AM, May 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-14 12:08:28-04

MARKSVILLE, La. – Two crawfish workers sued their former employer, alleging that the company regularly failed to pay overtime wages, often failed to pay the minimum wage it had promised, and deducted excessive expenses from their paychecks, according to a release from Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.

The workers were hired in 2020 on H-2B visas and came from Mexico to peel and package crawfish. They allege that Marksville-based Crawfish Processing LLC and owner Charles Bernard violated federal labor and migrant worker protection laws from 2019-2021.

The workers on May 13 filed suit for themselves and on behalf of all similarly situated workers. Individuals who worked at Crawfish Processing in 2019, 2020, or 2021 can join the lawsuit with court approval and claim back wages and other damages, the release states. According to federal employment records, the company hired 195 temporary H-2B workers in those years, plus an unknown number of local workers.

The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, says the company promised to pay the workers at least $9.75 an hour plus overtime but did not pay overtime wages despite workers regularly working 65 or more hours a week.

According to the complaint, Crawfish Processing LLC often paid its workers by the pound – a common practice in the industry – but then failed to properly document workers' hours and make up the difference when their earnings fell short of the promised minimum and overtime wages.

"Many people from my community come to work in crawfish, and many endure abuse and even mistreatment," said Norma Torres, one of the plaintiffs. "Many do not speak out for fear of not returning with a work visa. I hope my story, coming from someone who has worked in the plant, helps other people to no longer stay quiet. We all deserve decent treatment for our work."

The federal H-2B visa program requires that employers meet certain employment standards – in part to ensure that hiring foreign workers doesn't adversely affect wages and working conditions for U.S. workers.

"Covered workers are entitled to overtime when they work more than 40 hours in a week, regardless of whether they are paid hourly or on a piece rate," said Caitlin Berberich, an attorney at Southern Migrant Legal Services (SMLS), which is representing the workers. "Paying workers by the pound of crawfish meat peeled doesn't release an employer from its duty to also accurately report the hours worked and ensure workers are paid their minimum hourly wages and overtime."

The lawsuit is the second SMLS has filed on behalf of crawfish-processing workers in the state. Last month, crawfish workers sued to invalidate a U.S. Labor Department rule that allegedly allows H-2B employers to underpay both foreign and domestic workers, according to the release.

In addition to the wage issues, the crawfish workers' suit filed May 13 claims that Crawfish Processing deducted excessive amounts for items such as rent, check cashing, even work gloves. And it argues that the company violated migrant worker-protection laws by housing workers in unsanitary trailers that hadn't been certified by health and safety agencies.

Crawfish Processing also operated a check-cashing business to cheat workers, according to the suit. The company required workers to cash their weekly paychecks at Shirley's Crawfish Pad, a market operated by the owners of Crawfish Processing. This allowed the company to collect excessive expenses from the workers, including $3 to cash a paycheck.

"Unfortunately, these workers' stories are all too common, and in my experience workers at other plants also report wages below the federal minimum and excessive deductions," said Mary Yanik, Director of Tulane Law's Immigrant Rights Clinic and local counsel in the case. "Immigrant workers and local workers alike deserve living wages for these difficult and hazardous jobs."

KATC has reached out to Crawfish Processing LLC for a statement.

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