ATLANTA (AP) — A federal judge in Atlanta has ordered a forestry contractor to pay more than $11 million to about 4,000 Mexican and Guatemalan guest workers, but it's unlikely they will be able to collect much because the company went bankrupt.
The Southern Poverty Law Center brought the case on behalf of workers who planted pine trees for Franklin, Ga.-based Eller and Sons Trees Inc. over about 10 years starting in 1999. The workers claimed they weren't reimbursed for travel and visa expenses. They also said they weren't given all the hours of work they were promised in their contracts and that the company failed to keep accurate records of their hours.
The judgment Monday ordered the company to pay $11.8 million to the workers.
"Employers are now on notice that these types of abusive employment situations involving guest workers will not be tolerated and will prove devastatingly costly," said Jim Knoepp, the main SPLC lawyer on the case.
"They did not abuse these guest workers. They made a lot of good money," said Larry Stine, a lawyer for company owner Jerry Eller. "The lawsuit was about technicalities."
The cost of defending against the lawsuit forced the company out of business, Stine said. Eller subsequently filed for bankruptcy, leaving little for the plaintiffs to collect.
Eller filed for bankruptcy in Montana, where he lives now, and the settlement of his bankruptcy case essentially says he will not appeal the judgment in the lawsuit and the guest workers agreed not to collect settlement money under most circumstances, Stine said.