Grantee Spotlight:
IOLTA Funds Empower Arizona Farmworkers

Community Legal Services

Community Legal Services (CLS), now celebrating its 60th anniversary, is Arizona's largest civil legal aid program and a recipient of funding from Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA). Under the Arizona Supreme Court rules, the interest earned on IOLTA accounts is administered by the Arizona Foundation for Legal Services & Education (the Foundation), a non–profit organization chartered with promoting access to justice for all Arizonans and educating those most in need about the justice system.

The Foundation supports programs that help those who cannot afford a lawyer to obtain legal services and to improve the administration of justice. Without taxing the public and at no cost to lawyers or their clients, Arizona's IOLTA program currently provides more than $2.5 million per year benefiting over 30,000 families with free legal services and reaches over 300,000 children with education about their rights and responsibilities as citizens.

IOLTA funding to Community Legal Services began in 1985 and since then has benefited individuals and families by supporting the civil practice areas of family, housing, consumer, benefits, and employment in five of Arizona's fifteen counties. Since 1986, IOLTA funding has supported CLS' Farmworker Program statewide.

Farmworkers of Arizona

Arizona agriculture is a $9.2 billion industry, which ranks second in the United States' production of cauliflower, lemons, broccoli and several varieties of lettuce including head, leaf, and romaine. In fact, Yuma is the winter lettuce capital of the world. The driving force behind this industry is the Arizona farmworker. They are a unique and vulnerable population with their own distinct legal challenges.

The majority of farmworkers live in towns on the Arizona/Mexico border, specifically in and around the City of San Luis, Arizona. Two types of farmworkers are recruited from this area, migrant and seasonal. Migrant workers are recruited at the border and then bused to work throughout Arizona, as well as to areas throughout the country. These workers are required to spend at least one night away from their homes. Seasonal workers are not required to spend nights away from their homes but are typically required to gather in parking lots known as corralons in San Luis at a scheduled time each morning during a specific harvest season. Seasonal workers are then bused by their employers to fields which can be a few minutes or several hours away.

Both migrant and seasonal farmworkers are among the most marginalized labor groups in the world. In the United States, they contend with hardships that include substandard housing, low wages, insufficient education, limited English, and societal discrimination. In Arizona, they also struggle with obtaining health care, working in extreme weather conditions, and lack of transportation.

Arizona farmworkers generally earn between $7,000 and $10,000 per year with the bulk of this income made during the lettuce and lemon seasons. Their wages fluctuate year–to–year depending on climate and the prevailing economics of the state's agricultural industry. For instance, when an early freeze cuts the lemon season short, lemon harvesters are out of work without other employment opportunities. Similarly, farmworkers can lose income when temperatures soar. Extreme heat also poses grave health risks and, unlike Washington State and California, heat–safety statutes designed to protect farmworkers do not exist in Arizona. When farmworkers are unable to work due to heat–related illness or when their productivity is simply decreased due to the extreme heat, their earnings suffer.

Further, farmworkers are generally unable to afford their own vehicles and must rely on employers to bus them to and from the fields throughout the state. Arizona, unlike most other states, has a unique geography and topography which creates huge isolated distances between agricultural pockets. As a result, many of these workers spend hours on a bus each day traveling to and from the fields.

Community Legal Services' Farmworker Program

Advocacy for farmworkers is deeply rooted in Arizona; it is the birthplace of Cesar Chavez who was born in Yuma on March 31, 1927. CLS provides legal assistance to farmworkers throughout the state of Arizona. However, the office in San Luis is especially dedicated to providing better and more effective service to this group due to the large concentrated population of farmworkers living along the southwestern Mexico/Arizona border.

Community Legal Services' Farmworker Unit assists farmworkers and their families with various civil legal problems, particularly those pertaining to employment issues including, but not limited to, claims involving wages, employer provided housing and transportation, field sanitation, pesticides, discrimination, unemployment, workers' compensation and income tax. The goals of the program are to help these farmworkers achieve and maintain economic stability and to eliminate abusive labor practices. Outreach, education, brief advice, and litigation are the tools which the program uses to achieve these goals.

Since its inception, the CLS Farmworker Unit has been an active and vocal part of the community working with government agencies and farmworkers' groups to educate and empower this population. Members of the unit have served on various task forces and committees throughout the state and nation. Staff members build relationships with farmworkers and develop the trust needed to overcome their reluctance to complain about substandard working conditions out of fear of employer retribution. As one returning client said, "I always know I can trust the people at CLS. I know that you will fight for me."

Advocacy through Litigation

The Farmworker Unit has an extensive history of aggressive litigation to stop abusive practices against farmworkers. Lawyers base their arguments on several statutes including the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers Protection Act (AWPA), the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the Age Discrimination Act, and Section 1981. The Farmworker Unit provides representation at various levels, from individual clients in administrative hearings to crews of workers in federal law suits against large agricultural corporations.

The unit has a strong record of successfully engaging in complex federal litigation for the purpose of impacting farmworkers' lives by stopping abusive employer practices. In Barajas v. Bermudez, 43 F. 3d 1251 (9th Cir. 1994), the Farmworker Unit won a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision which held that Arizona's three–year statute of limitations for actions on oral contracts applied to the alleged AWPA violations. This litigation was significant to Arizona farmworkers who could now file claims for abusive practices going back three years.

In Ochoa v. JB Martin and Sons Farms Inc. 287 F. 3d 1182 (9th Cir. 2002) the Farmworker Unit won a 9th Circuit decision which held that: (1) a labor contractor was an agent of a grower, and a grower thus purposefully availed itself of the privilege of conducting activities in Arizona, for purposes of determining personal jurisdiction, and (2) assertion of personal jurisdiction over a grower was reasonable under the due process clause. With this ruling, employers from out of state could be held liable in Arizona if they used a middle man, i.e. a contractor to recruit for them in Arizona. This decision was extremely important for Arizona farmworkers who do not have the resources to pursue claims in other states against out–of–state employers.

Currently, the Farmworker Unit is representing 171 U.S. workers in a case in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals entitled Murillo v. Services Agricolas Mex. Inc. Case No. 12–16272. These plaintiffs previously worked for defendants as lemon harvesters. In 2006, Defendants applied to the Department of Labor to hire H–2A workers (temporary foreign labor) to harvest their crops. The Department of Labor requires that employers can only hire H–2A workers if there is not an adequate supply of U.S. workers and must recruit all former U.S. workers first. Defendants refused to recruit and hire any of the 171 Plaintiffs who are all U.S. workers and former employees.

Although a small group of plaintiffs were awarded modest monetary damages at trial, the Farmworker Unit is appealing the court's decision for all of the Plaintiffs. They are claiming violations of the AWPA and discrimination based upon alienage pursuant to Section 1981. A favorable ruling in this case would be vital to the farmworkers of Arizona who are legally in the United States and who should not lose their jobs because employers prefer temporary foreign labor.

Conclusion

IOLTA funding in Arizona has supported CLS' Farmworker Unit's ability to succeed in outreach and litigation. These funds empower the farmworkers of Arizona and enable them to improve their working conditions and achieve economic sustainability.

Pamela Bridge is a Senior Staff Attorney in the Farmworker Unit at Community Legal Services in Arizona.  She graduated summa cum laude from Methodist University in 1992 and earned her J.D. in 1995 from the University of Southern California Law School. In 2011, she received the Sharon A. Fullmer Legal Aid Attorney of the Year Award by the State Bar of Arizona.