For those of us who care about workplace abuse, these are trying times.
A federal court judge in Hawaii has forced the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to publically apologize for announcing last June that a settlement was “filed” in a case involving “vulnerable” Thai farm workers who were exploited by a labor contractor in Hawaii.
The announcement was technically correct but …
U.S. District Judge Leslie Kobayashi was miffed that the EEOC failed to state in a press release about a press conference that the settlements were not final until she signed the consent decree. She said she wouldn’t consider approving the $2.4 million in settlements for hundreds of Thai farm workers until the EEOC held a press conference clarifying that the agreements are still subject to court approval. She said that if the EEOC didn’t comply, she might reject the settlements and reset all claims for trial. Generally, it is pro forma for a judge to sign off on a settlement that is reached by the parties.
Does this remind anyone else of the Gilbert and Sullivan opus:
Behold the Lord High Executioner
A personage of noble rank and title
A dignified and potent officer
Whose functions are particularly vital
To the Lord High Executioner
To the noble Lord, to the noble Lord, to the Lord High Executioner!
As required, the EEOC held a press conference and publically apologized on Friday. An EEOC spokesperson explained that the EEOC issued an alert to the media last June that a press conference would be held to announce the settlements. She conceded the alert was “ambiguous” but noted the EEOC did state at the June press conference that the settlement was subject to court approval.
The absurdity of all of this might be laughable except for the waste of time and taxpayer resources – of which precious few are currently devoted to insuring that Americans toil in workplaces that are free from employment discrimination, bullying and abuse.
The EEOC is a small agency that was attempting, albeit clumsily, to use the medium of free publicity to send an important message to employers that exploit farm workers. Anna Park, a regional attorney for the EEOC in Los Angeles, was quoted last week as stating that the agency committed a “procedural oversight … We hope we can now move on for the judge to consider the decrees in the interest of the claimants in the case.”
Alas, even this is not sufficient to address the Judge Kobayashi’s concern that the EEOC “ignored the possibility that this court could reject one or more of the consent decrees.” Judge Kobayashi also said she will lodge disciplinary complaints with the State Bar of California against Park and Sue Noh, a Los Angeles EEOC supervisory trial attorney.
According to the settlement agreements, Mac Farms of Hawaii would pay $1.6 million, Kelena Farms would pay $275,000, Captain Cook Coffee Co. would pay $100,000 and Kauai Coffee Co. would pay $425,000. Del Monte Fresh Produce Inc. settled earlier for $1.2 million. Kobayashi has already approved that agreement.
All of the money will go directly to the workers in a distribution process that involves determining who worked on the various farms, for how long and the severity of the abuse workers suffered.
The EEOC filed a federal lawsuit in 2011 against California-based labor contractor Global Horizons and six Hawaii farms, with allegations including workers subjected to discrimination, uninhabitable housing, insufficient food, inadequate wages and deportation threats.
Global Horizons was found liable for the discrimination and abuse of the workers. Global Horizons and Maui Pineapple Co., the last farm that hasn’t settled, are scheduled to go to trial.