Dozens of dairy workers from Mabton demonstrated in Yakima on Wednesday night, demanding years of alleged unpaid wages from a Darigold-affiliated dairy amounting to roughly $1 million.
Three workers at the Mensonides Dairy in Yakima filed a lawsuit against the dairy on June 7, 2018, asking for payment for allegedly not being allowed breaks and mealtimes, according to United Farm Workers national vice president Erik Nicholson. A week later, the dairy filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, he said.
Chapter 11 allows an organization to reorganize its finances through a court-approved plan, while temporarily freeing it from creditors’ lawsuits. Unless the court rules otherwise, the debtor remains in control of the business and assets.
The majority of the bankruptcy claim — roughly $29 million of the $36 million claim — is money owed to Northwest Farm Credit Services, according to documents filed as part of the case. Nicholson said this is likely a priority in the line of payments.
Meanwhile, some 40 current and former Mensonides employees have joined the claim against the farm, with a total amount allegedly due to them amounting to roughly $1 million.
Nicholson said that while UFW has not yet seen payroll documentation from Mensonides, the $1 million is an estimate based on the hours workers calculated having worked without pay. A bankruptcy trustee told UFW that it could be up to 15 years before workers saw payment for their claims, he said.
“What’s so frustrating about this is, again, these are mothers and fathers of families. All they want to do is work, earn a fair wage and live their lives,” he said. “Simply get paid the wages that they’re owed.”
Nearly 30 complainants and supporters demonstrated in front of NWFCS on North 16th Avenue asking that the organization hold the farm accountable. “Queremos justicia: primero nosotros, el banco despues,” or “we want justice: first us, then the bank,” read one sign.
Simon Chavez, 47, said that during the two years that he worked for Mensonides as a maintenance worker, from 2015-17, he was expected to do a service check on service vehicles and warm their engines before clocking in for the day — a process that took roughly 30 minutes of unpaid work each morning. Additionally, workers were forced to work through two state-regulated 15-minute breaks each day, he said, or were accused of “stealing” time from the dairy.
“I’m here to make justice against Monsonides dairy,” he said. “They made us work, we didn’t get paid for our breaks and that’s what we’re here for. … We already worked for it; I think we should get paid for it.”
Ana Cruz, 39, worked for the company for a year tending to sick cows to ensure that the milk was high-quality and safe, she said. She, too, was forced to work through breaks without being compensated, she said, and was fired when she took a sick day.
“We want to be first in line to be paid,” she said. “We want the money that they owe us. It’s not money that’s being given to us — it’s our money.”
NWFCS officials could not be reached for comment. Mensonides officials did not respond to a request for comment as of press time Wednesday evening.
Jason Sheehan, a founding member of Eastern Washington Family Farmers, which is an affiliate of the statewide group Save Family Farming, said local dairy workers are treated like family — an important dynamic to keep farms running smoothly.
“It needs to be known that UFC likes to make claims and put on shows without much depth behind their accusations,” he said, pointing to a case settled between a Pasco dairy farm, workers and UFC earlier this month over similar allegations without payments. “(They are) really just trying to put on a show.”
Sarah Taydas, director of Darigold communications, said the organization did not have specific information about the dispute. Darigold-member farms are independently owned and operated, she said, but the group holds them accountable to a “rigorous and comprehensive program to ensure … farm employees’ social welfare and a safe, positive and productive work environment.”
“We’ve seen activists claim wage theft if breaks and wages for breaks are poorly documented, but we haven’t yet discovered a case where … there was actually sloppy documentation,” she said. “Employees routinely confirm that they get breaks and are paid for them.”
Taydas added that dairies are struggling industrywide and bankruptcies are not unusual.
“Over the last roughly four years, the environment for dairies has been difficult and dairies across the U.S. are going bankrupt due to difficult economic times and low milk prices,” she said.
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average price of whole milk per gallon across the country has been on a sharp decline since 2015, excluding a slight uptick in 2017. The cost of milk started at a high of $3.76 in January 2015 and hit a low of $2.87 per gallon in June of last year.
This story has been updated to correct a quote from Taydas.