Guestworkers Allege Unlawful Pay, Substandard Housing On Some Kentucky Tobacco Farms

May 29, 2015

Credit Todd Shoemake Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Nearly 40 H-2A guestworkers filed three separate lawsuits in federal court Thursday alleging civil rights violations within the Kentucky tobacco industry.

The H-2A program allows American farmers to bring foreign workers temporarily to the U.S.

Kentucky Equal Justice Law Center Attorney McKenzie Cantrell says the guestworkers were not paid the program’s guaranteed wage and some lived in accommodations with leaking sewage and pests.

“It’s not unusual for there to be wage violations, substandard housing,” Cantrell said. “And those can create a lot of problems for the workers because their status to be legally in the United States is tied to their employers.”

Cantrell says the workers were paid below the required wage of around $10 an hour.  She also says some of the housing leaked sewage and was infested with rodents and insects.

But Laura Powers with the Pennyroyal Farmers Analysis Group says government officials inspect housing each year before the workers arrive and that she has not commonly seen these violations.

She also says the tobacco industry relies heavily on the H-2A program to fill slots U.S. workers won’t.

“It’s an important program to the farmers,” Powers said. “So, they have the incentive not to abuse it.”

The suits are against Tracy Dillard of Monroe County; Earl Planck, John Watkins and Chad Price of Nicholas County; Gene and Austin McKenzie of Scott County and Lexington-based H-2 agent The Conley Law Group.

Kentucky is the sixth largest user of the H-2A program.