Gerawan farmworkers claim pay below minimum wage

FRESNO, Calif.

A day in the field for Rafael Amaro usually means ten hours or more of picking grapes. A week means 60 hours plus. And every two weeks, after all that work, Amaro says he often gets paid almost nothing.

"Sometimes we get checks for $300-$400," he said through an interpreter. "It depends on how the fruit is."

Amaro is one of two men to sue Gerawan Farming, claiming they've been paid less than minimum wage for their work. Their attorneys say more than 10,000 farm workers may have gotten short-shrifted.

"We feel confident this case will prove Gerawan has cheated thousands of its workers out of their wages for years," said plaintiff's attorney Mario Martinez.

We couldn't get past the barbed-wire fences at Gerawan, but the company issued a statement Tuesday afternoon.

"The notion that we would pay below minimum wage, not pay overtime, or not pay for rest breaks is untrue and absurd," a spokesperson said.

In fact, she says Gerawan has a history of paying the industry's highest wages. Their website says people packing grapes earn $15.35 an hour, grape pickers earn $13.48 an hour, and field laborers who also pick grapes earn $10.10 an hour -- well above the minimum wage. The trouble is, most of the workers get paid a piece rate, so their wages depend on how much fruit they pick.

Amaro says it's hard to know how much he'll make on any given day. And he says he's basically stuck with whatever work Gerawan can give him.

"There are options," he said, again through an interpreter. "There are options, but right now there is little work."

Gerawan and the United Farm Workers are also doing battle over whether the union should represent the company's employees. Some of the same lawyers are involved, but they say the fight over wages is unrelated.

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