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Immigrant Fruit Cutters File Class Action Lawsuit Against HEB Grocery Chain and Its Produce Company for Serious Minimum Wage and Overtime Violations

Workers who cut, bagged, and stocked fruit in HEB grocery stores filed a class action lawsuit on April 10, 2013 in the federal court in San Antonio claiming HEB and an affiliated produce company cheated them out of minimum wage and overtime pay. The workers are represented by lawyers of the Equal Justice Center. The suit covers more than 80 workers who labored in HEB stores across South, Central, and North Texas, in places like San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, Austin, Fort Worth, Corpus Christi, Laredo, McAllen, Brownsville and numerous other cities. The Equal Justice Center and the Houston law firm of Bruckner Burch are representing the workers in their legal action.

According to the lawsuit, the workers – mostly immigrants and women – worked long hours cutting and bagging fresh fruit for HEB and placing it in the HEB produce display cases for purchase by HEB customers. Frequently the fruit cutters worked at open display counters in the middle of the produce section enhancing HEB’s image by highlighting the freshness of its products. However, the fruit cutters were not paid a regular hourly wage. Instead, they received a small piece rate, typically a set rate for each bag of produce actually purchased by a customer. The workers say they often earned as little as little as $4 per hour because this system set their piece rate so low and failed to guarantee payment of the legally-required minimum wage. In addition the fruit cutters received no overtime pay even though they regularly worked 50-70 or more hours a week.

HEB says it has no responsibility for the illegal wages paid to the fruit cutters, because the workers were set up as employees of an affiliated company, Pastrana’s Produce, a Brownsville-based corporation. However, the workers maintain that they were jointly employed by both HEB and Pastrana’s, pointing out that they were an integral part of HEB’s operations, laboring exclusively in HEB-owned grocery stores, for HEB’s direct benefit, with HEB produce managers supervising their work (including even how to cut the fruit ), and with HEB managers controlling their work hours. To make matters worse, the workers say, rather than correct the violations, HEB and Pastrana’s terminated them, tried to mislead them into waiving their legal claims, and tried to prevent them from enforcing their wage rights or even talking about the violation of their wage rights.

The suit is the latest of several pending and settled lawsuits against HEB and Pastrana’s over the illegally low wages paid to similar fruit cutters in Texas HEB stores.