Del Monte settles whistleblower lawsuit for $400,000

Del Monte settles whistleblower lawsuit for $400,000
- PORTLAND, Ore. - Del Monte Fresh Foods has reached a settlement with eight former employees who claimed they were fired for complaining about safety problems.

The $400,000 settlement, which will be filed Thursday in Multnomah County Circuit Court, could ultimately benefit hundreds of other former workers.

Though it denies wrongdoing, Del Monte will pay $5,000 to each of eight fired workers and will deposit more than $300,000 into a settlement fund for class-action claims.

The company's Portland lawyer, Brad Stanford, said Wednesday that Del Monte "maintains that it is not liable for any of the plaintiffs claims in this case."

The case originated from a dispute about a shift that was scheduled to start at midnight on New Year's Day 2005.

As the holiday drew near, some workers at Del Monte's food processing plant in North Portland decided to meet at their temporary employment firm, Quality Manual Labor Inc., to ask for the time off.

About 30 minimum-wage workers showed up at the firm's offices Dec. 30 to make their case. The workers said they offered to come in early or work later to have the midnight hour with their families.

QML officials rejected the request, according to complaints and interview records filed with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries and Multnomah County Circuit Court.

Workers said one employee, Rocio Simon-Zarate, then asked them to address safety complaints. After those concerns were raised, they were all fired, the workers said.

On Jan. 28, 2005, eight of the fired workers filed complaints with the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, alleging QML violated state law by firing them for complaining about safety problems.

The following month, they met with Kenneth Cunningham-Parmeter at the Oregon Law Center, a nonprofit legal services organization that represents low-income clients.

In September, while waiting for the labor bureau to complete its investigation, Cunningham-Parmeter filed a lawsuit in Multnomah County Circuit Court against Del Monte, repeating allegations made against QML.

During the case, Cunningham-Parmeter requested wage records from QML and Del Monte.

He said he discovered that workers on numerous occasions had worked 12, 14 or 16 hours a day with no overtime.

State law requires that employers pay overtime rates to workers who put in more than 10 hours in one day, regardless of how many hours they work in a week, Cunningham-Parmeter said.

In November, Cunningham-Parmeter threatened to file a class-action lawsuit against Del Monte and QML, alleging the companies also had violated state wage-and-hour rules by failing to provide daily uninterrupted meal periods and 10-minute rest periods for every four hours employees worked.

In December, a labor bureau investigator found that QML had violated the workers' rights under state law. A month later, the employment firm and its owners vanished, Cunningham-Parmeter said.

On Feb. 27, Del Monte and Cunningham-Parmeter met reached a settlement with the help of a mediator.

Cunningham-Parmeter described the outcome as a rare win for low-wage, temporary workers.

"Ninety-nine times out of 100, no worker is going to complain," he said.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)