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More plaintiffs could soon be joining an existing lawsuit against a Sunflower County farming operation, and at least one other corporation may be named in the weeks to come.
The lawsuit, filed back in September by a half dozen former farmworkers against Pitts Farms Partnership, could soon involve a local catfish farm operation, Ty Pinkins (Mississippi Center for Justice), attorney for current plaintiffs Wesley Reed, Gregory Strong, Richard Strong, Andrew Johnson, Stacy Griffin and James Simpson told The Enterprise-Tocsin this week.
“There are a couple of other gentlemen, I don’t want to reveal their names right now because of legal issues, that are trying to join this suit, and they are obviously from Pitts Farms, but that’s in the process at the moment, trying to get them pulled into the suit as well,” Pinkins said.
Pinkins did not name the potential new defendant this week.
“The catfish farm is in Sunflower County,” Pinkins said.
The six plaintiffs are all Black farmworkers who claim in the suit that they “Have been systematically underpaid and denied job opportunities in favor of white foreign workers by their employer, Pitts Farms Partnership (PFP), for years.”
The E-T reached out to Pitts Farms Partnership’s attorney, Timothy Threadgill for comment on this article, but we had not heard back as of press time.
The white foreign workers referred to in the lawsuit are by and large South African laborers, who are used by many farming operations in the Delta to subsidize a perceived shallow labor pool during farming season, which runs most years from February to November.
Pinkins said the suit does not impugn the practice of utilizing foreign labor, particularly from South Africa, but he said in this case, at least, the defendant, and potential future defendants, violated multiple sections of the H2-A Temporary Agricultural Workers Program under the Department of Labor.
“There are a couple of stipulations that the farm owners have to acknowledge with DOL,” Pinkins said. “One is that the farm owner can’t find local workers, American workers, to do the work, and farm owners have attempted to find local workers to do the work. After they make that stipulation to the Department of Labor, then they are able to reach out to foreign workers. In the case of Pitts Farms, and a lot of other farms around the Delta, they reach out to South African workers to come over and work.”
Each of the plaintiffs are veteran farmworkers, and most have spent years and sometimes decades working for the Pitts operation, the suit claims.
Pinkins said the H2-A program requires farming operations to pay local farmworkers the same wage or higher that they pay foreign labor.
South African workers were paid a minimum of $9.87 per hour in 2014. That minimum rose to $11.83 per hour in 2020, according to the suit.
Pinkins said some of the defendants, who are all local, were consistently paid minimum wage ($7.25 per hour), with the exception of slightly higher wages for weekend work.
Griffin and Simpson were paid $9 per hour for driving heavy equipment, the suit said.
“When they bring South African workers, or foreign workers over here, if they still have local workers working on those farms also, doing the same work as the foreign workers, they have to pay the local workers at the same rate or higher of the foreign worker,” Pinkins said. “That’s what the issue is here, where a lot of local workers aren’t getting paid the same wage rate, or at least the same wage rate as the foreign worker.”
Pinkins said the violations were compounded two years ago when some of the plaintiffs were told their services were no longer needed at Pitts Farms Partnership.
“In some instances, what we assume is happening is foreign workers from South Africa, when they come, they’re being trained by the local workers, and then once those local workers train the foreign workers, then they’re being put in the same field as the local workers,” Pinkins said. “After a certain amount of time, a local worker is not invited back to work the next season. And that’s where you run into another issue with the H2-A visa program.”
Pinkins said that farming operations are required by statute to put forth as much effort in hiring local farmworkers as they do in recruiting foreign workers.
“Each season, they need to reach back out to the local workers who worked for them the previous season and offer them those positions, and obviously that’s not happening if you’re not even offering your former local workers to come back in the spring when the season starts,” Pinkins said.
The suit noted that in early 2020, Richard Strong, who had worked for the Pitts operation for 24 years, was dismissed. His company truck was taken, and he was told to vacate a dwelling he occupied on the farm’s property.
Pinkins said that his clients were all ready and willing to perform the work they know best, and that is farming.
“None of the gentlemen wanted to quit,” he said. “They are able-bodied men, who understand farm work. They’ve been doing it most of their lives, and they are willing to do the work now. It’s just that they were let go or not invited back to do the work they had been doing for a very long time.”
Here are a few notable excerpts from the lawsuit:
“Mr. (Richard) Strong never received any notice of his termination or explanation for why he was no longer needed,” the suit said. “Mr. Strong possessed all the specified qualifications for the jobs given to PFP’s white H-2A workers and, had he been notified of those positions and the wage rate being paid, he would have accepted the job.”
“Mr. Johnson faced a similar fate. He finished work for PFP in December 2019, expecting to be called back to work in February 2020 for the following season. After 19 years working for PFP, Mr. Johnson never heard from PFP about any job openings in 2020. When he inquired about a job, he was told he was no longer needed. Mr. Johnson possessed all the specified qualifications for the jobs given to PFP’s H-2A workers and, had he been notified of those positions and the wage rate being paid, he would have accepted the job.”
“Prior to the 2020 agricultural season, Mr. Reed, who had also worked for PFP for 19 years, told PFP that he was prepared to return to his long-time job, which included all the duties listed in PFP’s H-2A application for that season. However, Mr. Reed requested that he be paid the same wage rate as PFP’s white H-2A workers. PFP refused Mr. Reed’s request, telling Mr. Reed that PFP could not afford to give raises as they had several South Africans who would be arriving soon who needed to be paid at a higher rate, and that Mr. Reed’s rate would remain at the federal minimum wage. Because of PFP’s failure to pay him at the same rate as the white H- 2A workers, Mr. Reed did not work for PFP during 2020.”
“For the Plaintiffs who did work for PFP in 2020, their hours were greatly reduced. PFP’s submissions to DOL stated that the company required the services of eight agricultural equipment operators to work an anticipated 64.98 hours per week from February 1 through November 15, 2020, and the farm’s white South African H-2A workers were offered work opportunities at approximately this level. However, PFP offered far fewer hours to Plaintiffs for the 2020 agricultural season.”
“Mr. Griffin and Mr. Simpson were hired in the fall to help transport PFP’s harvested crops in 2020, but PFP never notified Mr. Griffin and Mr. Simpson of the job opportunities available operating heavy trucks during the early months of the 2020 agricultural season. Instead, during those early season months, PFP employed its white H-2A workers to drive heavy trucks to deliver water to various sites on the farm, and to transport obsolete or surplus equipment to auction sites outside the farm property and for other purposes. When Mr. Griffin and Mr. Simpson were finally offered jobs, in or about August 2020, they were assigned to different routes which were shorter than in prior years, resulting in fewer hours of work. Throughout the 2020 agricultural season, Plaintiffs Mr. Griffin and Mr. Simpson were offered fewer hours of work than PFP’s white H-2A workers, including those who drove heavy trucks.
Editor’s Note: Jyesha Johnson, who is employed at The E-T is related to multiple plaintiffs in this case, including her father, Richard Strong, grandfather Andrew Johnson and uncle Greg Strong. She did not contribute to this story.
Correction: The original article stated the lawsuit was filed last December. That is not correct. It was filed in September of this year.