Lawsuits allege abuse of temporary farm workers in Kentucky tobacco country

Mexican fieldworkers lured through a guest worker program to do sweaty, back-aching work in Kentucky tobacco fields were paid far less than their guaranteed wages and lived in rat-infested housing, according to federal lawsuits against a half-dozen farmers.

Three separate lawsuits filed this week in Kentucky allege numerous abuses of the H-2A program by the handful of farmers named as defendants.

The guest worker program has been a staple in Kentucky agriculture. It brings in temporary fieldhands from other countries to handle jobs that go unfilled among local workers. Those chores include harvesting tobacco and stripping leaves from harvested stalks to prepare the crop for market.

The plaintiffs — 39 Mexican guest workers represented by Southern Migrant Legal Services and the Kentucky Equal Justice Center — are seeking back wages and other damages. They claim violations of federal and state labor and civil rights laws.

Defendants include Tracy Dillard of Monroe County; Earl Planck Jr., John Watkins and Chad Price of Nicholas County; and Gene and Austin McKenzie. An attorney listed by the plaintiffs as a potential counsel for Planck, Watkins and Price didn't immediately return phone calls seeking comment. Phone numbers for the other defendants could not be immediately obtained.

Caitlin Berberich, one of the workers' attorneys, said Friday that an increase in H-2A abuses finally reached "a tipping point."

"Unfortunately, many employers see the H-2A program as a way to obtain a captive labor force that is unlikely to complain about illegal working conditions," she said.

The federal government sets an H-2A wage rate that varies by state. In Kentucky, the rate was $9.80 per hour in 2013, $10.10 an hour in 2014 and is $10.28 an hour this year, Berberich said. In some cases, the plaintiffs were paid less than the current federal minimum wage of $7.25, the lawsuits claim.

Employers hiring H-2A workers are required to provide them housing at no cost. The plaintiffs were placed in squalid conditions, the suits claim.

One suit alleges workers lived in rat-infested housing that had leaking sewage due to improperly maintained toilets. The house also lacked sufficient ventilation and heating, it said.

Another suit said workers ate meals standing up because there was no kitchen table. Another house offered by the same farmer had a toilet that didn't function at times, the suit said. The farmer installed a port-a-potty that wasn't emptied often enough, it said. The house had holes that allowed rats and insects to get inside, it said.

The other lawsuit said a house lacked a bed, offering a wooden box spring with an inflatable mattress on top. It said the house lacked a functioning shower, forcing the workers to bathe out of buckets. The house also lacked adequate heat and leaked during hard rains.

The workers claim other abuses. One lawsuit says workers were illegally charged $2,000 for their visas, $80 per month in rent and $180 for the cost of their transportation from Mexico to Kentucky. Employers are required to reimburse workers for costs incurred to reach their jobs.

One suit accuses farmers of confiscating workers' passports and other documents to prevent them from leaving before the season ended.

At one farm, the workers were coerced to continue working through a combination of indebtedness and threats that they would be arrested or reported to immigration authorities if they complained or left, a suit said.